29 March 2008

combing for agates on the Oregon coast

One is told countless times how beautiful the Oregon coast is and how one should be sure to visit. Living in a Midwest coastal town I understand the beauty and serenity the open water affords. I am used to beautiful calming vistas, unusual topography, and many natural areas protected for the use of wildlife, walking, hiking, swimming, and the like. I have visited the California coast and enjoyed its beauty. How could this stretch of beach be any different?

I was about to be awed.

To tell of its beauty minimizes the scale of its effect on your psyche. One approaches the beach and finds instant serenity in the pounding and dissipation of wide waves curling toward shore, the beach extending far into the surf, the water crawling inland slowly over flat sand. One thinks they could walk at least a hundred feet out into the water. Of course, one doesn’t try this in February.

I started my drive near Seattle, Washington wondering over small roads through logging areas making my way to the coast. The foggy bay of the Columbia River a few miles before spilling into the Pacific provided beauty that I naively thought would be unmatched for the day. The crossing of 4.1 mile Astoria Bridge provided amazing views from as high as 196 feet and as low as the level of the water itself. I feared that many sections of the bridge were floating, though later discovered that this bridge is actually the longest continuous truss bridge in North America. Supposedly it can withstand river speeds up to 9mph. Does that sound like a lot to you? Me neither.

As I neared the highway 101 exit to Cannon Beach, I decided to make a stop for coffee and get a glimpse of the famed coast. I was not prepared for what I was about to see. I parked and walked directly to the beach. Small rocky mounds jutted from the water near the shore and a few people walked on the flat sand near the edge of the waves. I enjoyed this for a moment and returned to town for my latte and to continue my trek south.

“What about Haystack?!” you might ask if you’re familiar with this coast and this famous little beach town.

As I drove out of town I swung right and down a small residential street to get one more glimpse of the beach before rejoining the highway. This is when I saw it, the third largest monolith in the world holding court over the many people scrambling about its rocky base. The Oregon coast is actually sprinkled with several and many huge monoliths representing an ancient coastline. I stopped many times to drink in the dynamic landscape and to try and burn onto my memory this beautiful and awesome place.

I made a few other stops as well to stock up on Tillamook yogurt, cheese, and curds at their visitor’s center and to get my car washed by high school freshmen raising money for a children’s hospital. When I realized I would not make my day’s destination before nightfall, I decided to stop just south of Waldport to take a walk on the beach. I parked in a tiny lot created unofficially by beach goers likely and read the posted warnings before venturing out on the beach. “Beware of unusually large sneaker waves,” was the first and most nerve racking post. Once on the beach and everywhere I looked, several people were bent over and looking for something. They carried neither buckets nor shovels, yet were very interested for what they were seeking. A few women were lying on the beach fully clothed and intent on searching in the rocky sand as well. I walked to one and asked what this was all about. They were looking for agates she explained. I had her show me her current stash to understand exactly what she meant. Now, having been a rock collector all my life, I felt like I was ‘with my people’ and found a new purpose for this afternoon walk. While many carried used coffee cups to stow their finds, I used the pockets of my vest coming home with several white, green, amber, and grey opaque stones.

27 March 2008

temporary playground

Winter brings to me another world to explore. It changes everything from how we drive, dress, play, and how we are outside. I love that I love the cold. Today, images of the icebergs and an endless horizon of water in crisp wintry quiet air waited for me on the Michigan coast. It is spring and one never knows how much snow will be in the dunes or if the icebergs have started separating making them unreachable from shore.

Being optimistic, I opted to go cross country skiing verses donning my hiking books. This proved wise as I glided effortlessly fast and ventured where surely I would have sunk a few feet into the snow or worse, through the ice.

I came upon the last dune to the shore and was immediately blasted by the wind unbroken by any tree. The waves were rough and dissipating far from shore causing the edge of the bergs to undulate. It was gorgeous seeing the ice pushed upon itself creating large rolling hills as if waves frozen in motion. Once on the beach, I broke a new trail close to the edge of the woods. The snow was really deep there but my skis held me up. The snow pretty much ended only a few feet outside of the tree line and started again with the shore line. I didn’t trust the ice originally, but spied some cross country tracks horizontal to the shore, so after several hundred feet of clean soft fresh snow I high tailed it to the water over the sand. This still makes me chuckle as if you’re not supposed to do that. The ice was strong holding me up though creating a roller coaster anxiety as I spied pools of water and would have an occasional pole break through the crust to a create a yet another slushy new pool.

Every year it seems so strange to see tall icebergs where there should be flat water. I stand up to fifty feet off shore where I should be swimming. The wind is quite strong but I risk taking my glove off just the same to snap several photos. I imagine myself as an arctic explorer breaking new ground and braving hardy tundra. Of course, my warm car and ride to a hot coconut hazelnut soy decaf latte is only a few miles away.

Eventually I turn around as thoughts of all I should be doing for the day start to crowd into the pure delight and enjoyment of nature. I didn’t have to ski all the way to the channel I justified to myself where surely more turbulent waters were brewing under the ice perhaps creating thinner sections than could be anticipated. In this direction, the wind pushed me along such that I was only steering as if on a sleigh. I think I heard myself giggling. Glee soon turned to fear as facing north now I saw more cracks, dips, and puddles of water freshly and thinly frozen over. Continuing on the lake wasn’t prudent as perhaps all the rain that fell only days before this latest blizzard weakened the ice. I cut into the woods taking in the shadows of the falling sun and enjoying the exertion of actually having to propel myself along.

I love that I love the cold.

25 March 2008

they swim in their clothes

I had forgotten that Asians are very modest; the kids as well as the care givers who came along to help, jumping in the sea fully clothed! I didn't dare disrobe to my bathing suit hiding under a long sarong and white blouse. In regret, I didn’t even jump in clothed as I was considering instead the five hour ride back home in wet clothes. The kids had a ball playing in the salt water; for many it was their first time swimming and for others their first time seeing the sea. Our small group of six rode a big coach bus from Phnom Penh to the province so to pick up the orphan children, and then continued another three hours to the coast; the orphanage itself already two hours from the city. When we arrived at the Wat, there were many kids dressed in their school uniforms even though it was a Saturday waiting by the road. We thought, "Oh, they are really ready!" Many of the kids had painted scenes of Kampot Beach during our Art Therapy "sanctuary place” exercise the day before and were really excited about going asking repeatedly what time we would be leaving for the next day. We almost rounded up the wrong kids! These children playing around the temple were from the village; our Wat Opot Project children patiently queuing on their campus within sight of the Wat, the road, and our bus.

Go to the Wat Opot Project website where you can see pictures of the children and their campus. If you go to the Special Projects tab on the website, you can see some of the artwork they have produced. Please note that while that page also talks about an art building, know that the children's needs are more direct as of this writing. It is a daily struggle to have enough food each day. If you feel compelled, please consider giving directly via their new US recognized fund: Wat Opot Children's Fund. You may also specify that the funds go to a special project you have in mind or that they are creating, such as an electric washer, implementation of electricity (they currently use a generator to provide electricity for two hours each evening), bicycles for the kids, or improved lodging. The website will list their most recent projects and needs.

All week during my visit, I'd been thinking about what Cambodia needs most. My short list includes:

  • Education of course
  • Screens for their windows and anti malaria preventive measures
  • Clean water
  • Plentiful food

Phnom Penh is a bustling recovering city, however only a few miles out of town, electric wires end, access to good schools diminish, medical care is sparse, jobs are non-existent, and markets offer fewer and fewer goods. For most of the villagers and all orphans I met, their direct needs are very basic: food daily, access to clean drinking water, and university funds.

At another orphanage, UNACompanied ASsociation, called UNACAS, the children dressed in traditional costumes and performed for our small group. The children are incredibly precious and it saddens me that *for now* Cambodia is closed to the US for adoption. I feel rather odd in that we arrive to eat lunch especially prepared for us, sit as a special audience for a relatively big production of traditional dancing, and then we leave. The kids were so adorable and remembered us more than we from our previous visits during the week. I shot at least 30 pictures of children just before we left as they vogue for me squealing, ‘one more!’ after seeing the image on my camera and running back again to pose giggling all along.

Learn more about this project by contacting them directly via this link *scroll to bottom to find*

welcome to Cambodia

It is easy to quickly acclimate to the chaos of the city; vehicles of all sorts, open store fronts, men squatting on the sidewalk fixing, carving, welding, eating, watching, and the like are all common sites. There are millions of motorbikes in Phnom Penh and consequently many shops on every street offering motorcycle needs. These ‘stores’ with all their showrooms on the sidewalk typically specialize and sell only one item such as unpainted plastic, shocks, helmets, spark plugs, seats, wheels, or other unrecognizable parts. Some specialized in fixing bikes and would do the mechanics right there on the sidewalk. Men even weld on the sidewalk in plain view of everyone; no eyes protected. It is interesting also to see stacked on the sidewalk several boxes of TVs! Certainly they pull these into their store – basically a narrow room facing the road that is their warehouse secured by a metal pull down garage door, at night only to restack them outside for potential buyers every day. The other stores have tons of colorful wares and speeding by in our taxis some are unrecognizable but look a lot like kitschy stuff to me.

Eleven million people live in Cambodia. It is a small country about the size of Missouri. Education, technical training and skills development are crucial to rebuild the capacity of people to improve their lives and to help the country overcome their second-world status. Cambodia's once rich natural resources--minerals, forests and fish--were greatly depleted during decades of civil war and turmoil. Most of the country's economy is spurred on by tourism, garment factories and international aid. Our group consists of four people from Holland, Michigan and two from Bali, Indonesia to bring supplies, money, and art therapy to a few orphanages.

We change hotels three times while in Phnom Penh and while we get $15 dollar rooms in four star hotels we were all a bit uncomfortable with open bathroom windows and rooms not sealing to the outside world. Phnom Penh is supposedly malaria free, though I still worry about the risk, being the only one in our group not to take malaria medication. I rarely saw a mosquito in my room through out the week, but knew being stung was bound to happen. To combat this inevitability during sleep, I wore a head net to bed each night I was in Indochina.

the orphanage
After a nice breakfast at the Hotel Anise where they make a great quasi-western breakfast of an omelet of sorts with a grilled tomato half garnishing the plate served with great French baguette, we take a big Mercedes van to the Wat Opot orphanage an hour and a half south of Phnom Penh in the Takeo Province. The orphanage is situated behind an active temple, called a Wat in the village of Opot; this is how the Project is named. The campus includes a few buildings and they tend to ponds in the back for fish. Barbed wire is strung along the back yard to keep the cows out, and they keep ducks, geese, and tend to a garden. Boys run around us flying home-made kites as we walk. Here, all kids live together; both HIV positive and negative. This orphanage is also an AIDs hospice caring for adults as they die. It is often that the parents choose to come here to die so that their kids will be taken care of after they are gone. The government is getting better distributing ARV drugs and caring for it’s sick. The death rate has fallen from close to 100 per month to four. Typically, It is rare that children would be kept together regardless of their HIV status and doctors from all over the world want to study this Project. Our first day, there is a group of Japanese doctors visiting considering taking on this study. I fear they will uncover that the kids do transmit to one another; let's hope not.

I worry about the kids contracting the illness from each other and of the danger of getting sick myself as some of the children pointed out to me having AIDs have open sores on their arms and legs while others HIV positive look completely healthy. It is a sad situation to witness.

Some of the children eventually join us in our tour of the grounds as we walk towards the Wat being led by a very interesting woman from Santa Cruz, California who is volunteering for six months here. She’s taken two years to travel and volunteer at various places in South America and Asia. She is a teacher by trade and also a famous surfer. At the orphanage, she helps with the daily needs of the kids such as bathing and dressing caring mostly for the children she notices that are prejudiced by the official staff of care givers. Vicki also teaches the children and a few of the monks from the Wat, English in addition to starting formal lessons on guitar and piano.

Upon arriving at the Project, she found the Wat to be filled with garbage and the floors filthy. The monks didn’t clean up and it was not a peaceful place to mediate. She cleaned it right away and started a program with the kids to help every week there. The monks have appreciated their efforts and started to take better care of the overall grounds as well. In the main temple the kids cling to a few of us and run around yelling, listening with muffled giggles as their voices echo in the tall empty brightly painted room. They play a game with me where they try to sneak up on me, only to run away when I ‘happen’ to notice them. They are adorable.

art therapy and scotch tape
We have time with a few kids who are not in school and we start the first session of Art Therapy using ‘story people’ to talk about what's important in their lives and how we are all different so to praise our individuality. We talk about expressions and how we each react to various situations. The kids draw their own faces in various moods, one child so intent on being accurate that he stood in front of a small mirror hanging in the classroom his sheet of paper held to the wall adjacent. The kids are so loving, interested, and focused on education. Many spoke –via translators, and wrote about how they want to go to university to study and to travel or be doctors. Education is what Cambodia needs most. The kids are amused when after tedious folding and cutting of their papers, a paper doll emerges. I have them cut out the face they drew from the expressions exercise and this is taped to the doll along with the arms in various poses. It is then they become more fascinated with the tape than anything else possibly never having seen it before. “Can I have more tape?”

After the lesson we sit on the cement fence in front of the dorm and talk with the kids. Most just want to hold our hands. One of the older woman helpers – who are nicked-named, ‘Grandmas’, walks out of the dorm with a five year old crying boy whose legs are covered in sores. Closer, she pushes him towards me to hold and comfort. I am completely petrified as he is likely HIV positive and I am scared to touch him avoiding personal contact with the children all day. I pat his back and pull him a little closer to my side. The Grandma puts his hand in mine and I work hard not to show alarm on my face. Still he cries. I’m not about to pick him up. I walk him over to another from our visiting group is lifting boys up to sit in a tree hoping he’ll take over for me. I walk slowly with this little child until I see that his feet are starting to bleed as they are dry and swollen, the dirt and gravel trail being too much for them. I turn him around and get him back to the Grandma pointing to his feet. Of course he’s crying.

I’m never so thrilled to get on our mini-bus and douse my hands and arms with anti-bacterial gel, though I wait ‘till after we have waved our goodbyes and the bus has turned away from the kids.

breakfast parade
At breakfast in a new neighborhood we sit on a sunny veranda overlooking a street. There become fewer and fewer cars and suddenly there are monks in the street marching and carrying gold boxes, some with umbrellas shielding them from the sun, others an umbrella being held for them by a helper aside or behind them. There are many people now and the street has suddenly turned into a parade. Behind the monks are women of all ages and mostly older who are dressed in white carrying these same boxes. Then come women in white tops and matching maroon sarongs carrying one or two gold boxes, some carrying gifts on their heads.

I get myself to the curb narrowly missing an old shabbily dressed woman walking on the street parallel with the parade carrying a large bamboo cage filled with small wren like birds. I take pictures of the women who oblige by smiling at my camera. The parade now turns to young people dressed in white shirts and navy pants –typical school uniforms, carrying these same boxes. I’ve got to find out what this is all about, so I start walking in the parade much to the chagrin of my traveling companions and make my way to the middle to spy. I find a young boy smiling in greeting to me and say hello the Kmer way, “Sou-sdie!”. He says “hello” in response and I ask him what is in the box and why they are marching. Unfortunately his English only extends to greeting though and he can’t answer. The gold boxes have clear lids and I look inside only to see various toiletries and toys. They all seem to be carrying the same box filled with similar items. It reminds me of the Samaritan Christmas shoe box initiative.

another orphanage
After breakfast, we drive a short way into the province to visit a smaller orphanage of about thirty kids run by Baptist Philippines. I choose to do a coping exercise where we can discuss what is important in our days and in our hearts to help the children look within themselves to draw comfort in their faith and for the dreams and memories they hold most dear.

It is a very successful lesson day and gives Frida and I the most warmth that maybe we helped them. Gary talks with the kids while we cut paper and ready tables for the painting project. We sing songs together in English with the children as they wait patiently as we prepare. With a translator I introduce myself and use the blow up globe to illustrate that I come from the other side of the world. I don’t know if they understand or if they’ve even seen a globe before. I have the children pass the globe around as they introduce themselves and tell me how old they are – some do this in English, some Khmer. Frida and I dialog with them through the teachers acting as our translators, Ella and Romaleen discussing what is important in our daily lives and in our hearts. I share that I pray everyday when I wake up still lying in my bed. I talk about bicycling, cooking, working, traveling to far away lands, and close friends. Frida talks about how she prays and how God changes her so maybe she is less angry. A few kids volunteer to share with us that God is important to them and they want their family to know Jesus –this is significant especially as when these children have living relatives, the families have abandoned them. One girl wants all of Cambodia to know about God and be saved. The oldest by far is a boy of 19 and he shares in English that he wants to be a missionary to travel Cambodia and the world sharing the message of Jesus.

I draw on the sheets of large paper a heart and hand them out to each child who eagerly starts drawing understanding the exercise completely to record what is important to them inside the heart. Afterward we have a few kids explain to everyone why they drew what they did. It is so incredibly precious. I explain with Romaleen that they are to remember these future dreams, faith, friends, and ideas always. I remind them that they are the future of Cambodia. Frida and I lead them in the song, “God Is So Good” singing only the first verse, but in three languages: English, Khmer, and then Indonesian. We all hold our heart pictures up and sway as if at a concert. We close by praying out loud and bless them.

As we loaded in the van to head back to the city, it was especially precious to hear one young child singing to himself, "God is so good.."