Sunday, September 28, 2014

This is Probably Cancer - Memoir Writing 1

**NOTE** This took place on September 21, 2012. I am taking a memoir writing class and this I was a piece for an assignment. **

My mom insisted on coming, but I thought she was overreacting.  The doctors were simply going to tell me the same thing the doctors in the Philippines told me, “It looks like a benign tumor, go for a check up in 6-12 months, besides, you’re too young to have cancer and you have no family history of breast cancer.”  It’s true, I was only 34 and no one in my entire family had ever been diagnosed with breast cancer, so I was confident I didn’t have it either.  I just had a weird lump in my right breast that I happened to find during one of my sporadic breast self-exams, which I only did about 2 or 3 times a year when I would occasionally pay attention to reminders I would see.  I always expected not to find anything, so it was a bit alarming that 3 months prior suddenly something there, but then again I’ve heard our bodies can change in your 30’s.  It’s probably a cyst or fibroid.  We do not have breast cancer in this family never mind people having cancer before age 40.  

It was a crisp fall day as we set out for the 1.5 hour drive to hospital in my mom’s grey Toyota matrix with missing hubcaps and a rosary swaying from the rear-view mirror.  All I could think about was the 3 month trip through Southeast Asia I was about in embark on in 2 weeks with my sister.  I had been waiting so long for this trip to celebrate completing 2 years in the Peace Corps serving in the Philippines.  And I was excited to spend time with Val as we haven’t always had the best relationship, we had clashing personalities growing up.  She was bossy, overbearing and a bully at times, I was overly sensitive, angry, and unpredictably moody, but as we’ve gotten older, we’ve both worked really hard on recognizing our faults and trying to correct them.  This trip was going to be a defining moment for us and I was really looking forward to having a sisterly bond with her.  Cancer was the furthest thing from my mind.  Besides, how could a modern, state-of-the-art hospital in the Philippines with a breast cancer center that had equipment I’ve yet to see here in the US be wrong.  That’s all they did was breast cancer.  They know if it is cancer or not and they told me it wasn’t.  But my mom, being the nurse that she is, insisted I go for a second opinion.  

In the waiting room, I was thinking about all the last minute shopping I was going to do in Burlington.  Brandon, a town of 4,000 people had little to offer when it came to travel equipment.  Most people in my home town have never left the country except for the mandatory 6th grade trip to Montreal at the end of the school year.  I hadn’t waited more than 10 minutes before the nurse called my name, showed me to the sonogram room where they were prepared to image the mass in my breast.  This mass was about the size of a quarter and felt like someone had implanted a smooth round river stone under my skin.  It didn’t hurt, it didn’t move.  It was just there and it was odd.

The technician came in holding my chart open looking at imagines I had sent from the Philippines and without looking up at me says, “OK, they wrote down a size and location of the tumor in the report, but I do not see it on these images.”  She then looks up at me and says, “Can you show me where it is?” I point to the location and she squirts some gel on it and presses the wand to my breast and quietly says, “oh, yes, there it is.”  Then why didn’t it show up on the images from the Philippines I wanted to ask, but I was afraid. Did that state-of-the-art hospital miss something?  A wave of doubt slowly started creeping up on me.  She points out that the mass is solid, and that there is blood flow to it.  At that time, I didn’t know what that meant.  Of course I knew it was solid, I could feel that, and I assumed all tissue had blood flow to it.  I didn’t know that blood flow was a big red cancer flag.  She continues the imaging slowing working away from the tumor to the rest of the breast and stops in a spot almost in my armpit.  It was the same spot that I was called back to have mammorgramed twice in the Philippines because they told me they had a blurry image.  I asked her why she stopped.  “I’m looking at your lymph-nodes and they look enlarged.”, she replies.  She then continues to explain she’s going to image my other breast even though it wasn’t part of the originally plan for this second opinion.  Thankfully that side was clear.  When the sonogram was over, she shows me to a little waiting room where other women were sitting in gowns, most years older than me.  She told me that she was going to consult with the radiologist, but that they would most likely want to get a mammogram today as well.  Again, not part of the original plan.  They send a nurse out to get my mother to sit with me.  The wave of doubt is now becoming stronger as it pushes the excitement for my upcoming trip out of the way.

As soon the mammogram was over and I was dressed, they showed my mom and I into a little room to wait for the radiologist. You could tell they tried to make the room feel comforting. There was no hospital equipment, but instead a love-seat, a couple of nice chairs and soft lighting.  There as a tissue box over on the side table.   I felt anything but comfort being in that room.  The radiologist didn’t waste any time explaining to me they want to do a biopsy, not only on the tumor, but on my lymph-nodes as they suspect there are at least 2 tumors present there.  She then said, “I know it will be a few days before we know, but I need you to start preparing that this is probably cancer.”

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Bewitched by Cancer

I know I should be writing about the last half of my around the world tour. My computer broke in Hawaii and I'm currently writing this on a tablet. I promise, as soon as I get a new computer i'll fill in all the incredible details of the last 2 months of my trip.
Now I'm going to write about going back to dealing with cancer. While I was traveling, I was in a state of relaxation that I'm not sure I've even known in my adult years. I didn't not feel stress or anxiety, even when my travel plans went horribly wrong. I loved the long night buses, waking up in a strange town and getting lost on quaint streets. Traveling is spiritual for me. I felt closest to god, nature and the world around me. Ive now been in the US for a month and VT for 2 weeks, and I'm disappointed at how quickly stress and anxiety crept back into my life. The past two weeks I've been trying to juggle doctors appointments, work and job interviews. Work and the job interviews I find exciting, and I'm looking forward to finding out what this next year might bring, it is the never ending doctors appointments that drain me.

While I was traveling, I felt normal, like cancer was a thing of the past and there were even some days where cancer wasn't the first and foremost thing on my mind. I was finally feeling like I might be able to get my life back from the disease that already took so much. But since I've been back, cancer is regaining control of my life and all of my important decisions.

I am approaching my one year anniversary with no evidence of disease. It is a huge milestone, which I am unable to celebrate. In one way or another, i'll always be holding my breath and looking over my shoulder that cancer could be slowly invading my cells as it hijacks my veins to travel throughout my body. And as I approach this week that thought could be come a reality.  this week I have a bone scan and a scan of my uterus to look for signs of cancer.

A bewitching occurs as soon as the appointment for a scan is made. It starts slowly, and then snowballs into a frenzy of anxiety, on the verge of tears stress that I've learned to manage in public and act like nothing different is happening in my life. But tonight, as I round the corner to the week that might change my life forever I am counting down the days between still being in remission to being told i'll be living with cancer for the rest of my life. As I write this, I feel the intensity of my anxiety and cannot help to think I must be over reacting, is it normal to be this crazy and think this way? I know that I have a 70 percent chance this cancer may never come back, so the odds are in my favor. But I also know way too many young brothers and sisters who have lost the fight or are in a constant battle with the disease. I should not be dealing with these things in my 30's. My 30's are supposed to be about advancing my career, finding a life partner and starting a family. Instead I've had to move in my with my parents, put my career on hold and come to terms with the fact that dating isn't in my cards anytime soon.

Even as I apply for new teaching positions in the fall, cancer will eventually dictate my decisions as I know i'll finally be going through the most dreaded surgery for any breast cancer survivor: the double mastectomy. It is something that needs to be done as I am BRCA 2 positive and because of this genetic mutation I have a 50% chance of getting a totally new breast cancer. After the quick death of my friend, Tea Tree, I realized there were still things I can do to potentially save my life, although it is not sexy or glamorous, it's lifesaving. Besides, cancer already robbed those things from me, what's another thing to add to the list of scars and marks on my body.

So, to my loved ones, co-workers, the girl at the checkout in the grocery store I apologize if I seem distant, short, unwilling to make eye contact. I'm trying to hold it together, but it is exhausting.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Pai, Thailand: Motorbikes, hippies, coffee, waterfalls and lots of turns

Pai is a small town in Northern Thailand about 3 hours north of Chiang Mai.  I had heard from fellow RPCV Philippines people that has a similar vibe to Sagada, my favorite place in the Philippines.  So as soon as I felt recovered from our Hike and bike that wasn't leisurely at all, we booked a mini bus to Pai.  Now, I had also heard that the road to Pai was crazy. They boast there are over 700 turns, most of them hairpin turns, and people are prone to car sickness.  You can actually buy a shirt in Pai bragging about the turns your survived on your way there. I wanted so badly to rent motor-scooters and do the trip that way, but since I have zero experience driving one, we opted for the bus with the plans of getting me a front seat.
Pai, Thailand

Since chemo, I get car sick so much easier than I ever did.  For the first time in my life, I actually got motion sick on an airplane, I knew this was going to be rough trip so I knew I needed a front seat.

We get to the bus station and the driver points to two seats in the way back seat, the farthest back you can go.  I point to an empty seat closer to the front and he shakes his head no points to the back seats.  I then motion to my stomach and make a sad, sick-looking face.  Still no, then I do the motion of vomiting to really drive the point home and he hands me two plastic bags and points to our seats in the way back.

 I had to go to the bathroom and when I came back, Kimberly was sitting in the seat I wanted and insisted I sit there.  She said, "don't worry, you get this seat."  and  a Thai women gets in the back with Kimberly.  All the Thais were up front while all the foreigners were in the back. I though, what a scam.  And we probably pay twice as much as they do. Near me were two brothers from Australia and one hands me some motion sickness pills.  So armed with the pills, my 2 cans of coke, and a decent seat I was ready for this ride.  I was very thankful for Kimberly's persistence in getting me a closer seat as the road was crazy.  It reminded me of the road I would take from my site in the Philippines to the closest city, Baguio.  I always left that ride dizzy and needing a few hours to recover.  Luckily, I was able to see out the front window and I actually enjoyed my ride.

When we got to the bus station, I immediately booked my ticket back in 2 days at 10am to make sure I had a spot as I didn't want to miss my flight out of Chiang Mai.  That's when I realized, the bus wasn't a first come first serve deal with seats, you actually choose a seat when you book, but since my guesthouse had booked for me, I didn't know this was the case. I suddenly felt guilty for kicking the Thai women to the back seat and making such a fuss.

We then called our lodging to figure out how to get there and they came and got us.  We stayed at a cute little place called Heart of Pai, just outside of town, but close enough to walk to town.  We splurged a little, paying 500 baht a night (less than $20) because they place had  great reviews online, A/C, and nice comfy beds.  The guest house in Chiang Mai was very basic accommodations,  hard beds, no A/C, but a bathroom in every room with hot water for only $10 a night.  I liked that guesthouse, Mountain View, mostly because the staff was so helpful and so I didn't see a need to look for another place.

We dropped off our stuff, grabbed some lunch and went to inquire about renting scooters.  First question was, "Have you ever driven one?" To which I replied no and the lady told me it was no problem because they will give me a tutorial and she yelled over to another staff member.  They spent about a minute yelling back and forth and then she told me that they cant rent to me as they have been getting a lot of complaints form the police and so now they are under restrictions.  I was bummed :(.  I was so excited to try one out.  So we decided to just rent one, and I would be the passenger.  But first we rented bicycles, 50 baht for 24 hours (a little less than $2) to peddle around the town to get oriented.  It was a small town and only took us about an hour to do the entire thing.  I loved the town so much that i returned to the bus station to change my 10 am ticket to an afternoon ticket.  I wish I had come to Pai earlier.
Giant Buddha in Pai

That night we found a cute little Jazz bar called Edible Jazz, which was having open mic.  It was a mellow bar with a mellow crowd mixed with hippies and older travelers, both locals and tourists. It was a space that was mostly outside with various comfy chairs and right in front of the stage were short Japanese style tables with pillows to sit on.  We had a great time listening to the music and sipping on a few drinks.

Pai is an interesting town.  I loved the town itself, but I quickly realized I wouldn't have lasted long because of all the hippies.  Now, I have nothing against hippies, especially since I'm part hippie myself, but there were definitely 2 distinct groups of travelers.  The people who you saw in the day time, the ones genuinely curious about the town and what it had to offer, you would see the same people at the same tourist attractions and soon you would start saying hello to each other.  Then there were the night time people, the people who only came there to party.  Pai is notorious for their drug scene, especially marijuana and opium. These people get stuck in a town like Pai as they party all night and then spend the day trying to recover so they can go out again at night.  So around dinner time, that's when you see both groups collide.  In the town, every night they set up a night market. And for as far as you can see, you see mostly white people with dreadlocks or hair that looks purposely unkempt with an arm full of bracelets and wearing pajamas.

 Ok, not really pajamas, but that's what they look like to me.  At some point in time, SE Asia became known for baggy printed cloth pants with elastic at the ankles and elastic waste bands.  Many of these pants have a crotch that extends down to the knees or even further.  To put it simply: they are ugly, almost as if you crapped your pants.  But for some reason they are extremely popular, especially among the young 20 something hippies. It is similar to the crocs craze.  Everyone wears them, yet they are beyond ugly. The first time i saw crocs was when I was returning to the US from living abroad in Chile for a more than 2 years.  I was at the airport going through Immigration when I noticed all these people were wearing the same shoe, but in different colors.  All I could think of was these poor people must have been on some sort of vacation together and somehow lost their shoes and then had to buy the only shoes available at whatever resort they were on.  Then I get home and my friends were wearing them.  "They're so comfortable!" is the reply I got when I asked why they had those shoes.  These  hippy tourist pants are the same, people tell me how comfortable they are.  But why are these pants in SE Asia.  Through observation, I tried to figure out this phenomenon out.  Maybe the locals wear them?  No, I couldn't find any evidence of that.  Maybe they used to wear them?  They did sell a pant they called fisherman pants that the locals used to wear.  They were big and baggy, but instead of elastic waste they had a string you would tie together to hold them up.  Also, the crotch didn't reach your knees.  When I did my meditation retreat, these were the pants they gave us. So, my conclusion is I don't know why you can buy baggy, saggy-crotch, pajama-like pants in SE Asia, but you can for real cheap and every body buys them.  Except for me.

The next day, Kimberly and I  hopped on our scooter together to tour around Pai.  We start off in search of one of the local waterfalls, but it was dry season so it was a rather wimpy waterfall.
wimpy waterfall

Then we set out for a viewpoint, which when we arrived we were the only ones in a massive parking lot with a supposed viewpoint at the end, which wasn't much of a view and what view there was was masked by the smoke of nearby burning rice fields.  After that disappointment, we then decided to go find some coffee at a cute coffee shop called Coffee Love.
supposed viewpoint
I love Thai iced coffee

From there we headed towards another waterfall without intending to go the waterfall to search for Land Split farm, which is on the road to the waterfall.  I think Land Split farm was my favorite.  it literally has a giant split or crack in the middle of the farm.  One morning about 5 years ago, the farmer woke up to find this giant crack on his land, making that portion of the land unfarmable, so they decided to try to turn it into a tourist attraction.  You arrive and are immediately greeted with smiles from the family and they gesture for you to sit at one of their picnic tables.  Within minutes comes an array of delicious food they grow on their land. They served hibiscus tea, hibiscus wine, dried bananas, peanuts, sweet potatoes,  tamarind and papaya.  They do not ask for any money for the food, but there was a donation box on the counter and therefor could leave as much or as little as you'd like.  The farmer came over and sat down with us and in very little English and a lot of hand gestures and smiles, tried to explain what happened on the farm.  He then motioned for us to walk around the farm and look at the crack and the crops. I think I liked this farm because is showed Thai hospitality and culture and it was something very different from the typical super touristy Pai scene.
Kimberly with the farmer at Land Split Farm

Delicious samplings

We ended our day at the Canyon, as multiple people told us it was the best spot to see the sun set, and it was magnificent.  I was glad to have made it to Pai, but realized 2 days was enough time to see everything there before the town got tiring and boring.  I think that's the trick to enjoying traveling, staying just the right amount of time to be able to see a lot of things while still wanting a little more.  That way you leave the place still in awe and wonder.
sunset at the canyon

I then took the afternoon trip back Chiang Mai the next day, and was in the front seat of the van, so that made me a very happy girl.  The next day I flew to Bangkok to spend a couple more days with Justin and Marlo before heading to Australia and New Zealand.

In Bangkok, Marlo and I went the Grand Palace, which is something you must do Bangkok as everyone asks you if you went there.  But the be honest, I wasn't that impressed.   I actually thought some of the other wats (temples) were more impressive.  Maybe I was wat-ed out, once you see a bunch, they all start to look similar.  After we roamed around for a bit, Marlo took me to where they stayed when they first arrived in Bangkok, a backpackers guesthouse.  As soon as he turned the corner down the street towards the guesthouse, people recognized him, came over and shook his hand.  Our intention was to have a quick bite to eat and get home, but these three old ladies quickly surrounded him with food, fused over him and slapped down bottle after bottle of beer.  Even though the ladies barely spoke English, and Marlo barely spoke Thai, their friendship was evident and somehow they were still able to communicate and tell each other stories.  At one point one of the old ladies went into her house and came out with 2 necklaces with little gold figurines on them.  To my untrained eye, they looked like little Buddhas, but she told me no and tried to explain who it was.  From my understanding it was a famous monk who has since passed away.  She said to wear him for good luck.

I really did enjoy my time in Thailand, and I know someday I'll back. I left a lot to be seen.

Things happen in threes

There is an old saying that says things happen in 3s.  My Irish grandmother insists it's an Irish saying, but I don't know where that saying came from; however, I really do hope things happen in threes because this has been one difficult month.

I already spoke about the the tragic deaths of my two friends, but just last week an uncle very suddenly and tragically died.

Again, I contemplated going home and called the airline to see if was possible, but it was extremely expensive and I would barely make it home in time for the funeral.  And once again, there was nothing I would be able to do the ease the pain for my Aunt and cousins.  My heart aches for them.

His passing has made me realize that I really don't know my family very well and that I need to do something about that.  It is now on my bucket-list.  Because my parents were transplants in Vermont, I didn't grow up around extended family.  I used to get jealous of my friends who had their grandmas pick them up for school or grew up with cousins living around the corner from them.  To see extended family required lots of planning for our family as it always involved traveling, so I only saw my cousins at special occasions and during summer vacation, which was always a blast.  But now that we are adults, ,and the fact I have lived for many years outside of the country, we have barely seen each other.  I am looking forward to my brother's wedding as all the cousins will be together again, and I think it has been more than 10 years since that's happened.  Also, by being out of the country for so many years, I've missed weddings, births, deaths and other milestones that families celebrate, or mourn, together further driving distance between me and my family.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Chiang Mai

I'm trying to catch up on my blog, but it's a little difficult.  I've been walking around with a bit of a heavy heart that started with the news of my friend, Tiffany, while I was traveling in the Philippines.  I met her while rock climbing with an amazing group of cancer survivors just 6 months ago.  Her cancer went from zero to 60 in a matter of weeks.  Then, just a week ago, I received news that another friend, Keith, suffered a massive blow to his health when he collapsed from a heart attack after a run and hit his head when he hit the floor. It is with a broken heart, and a soul filled with sorrow that I have to report Keith passed away on Friday and Tiffany passed away on Sunday.  I'm not sure how much more pain I can handle on this trip.  If I were home, I would at least be with other people who were mourning and therefor be allowed to cry in public surrounded by others who felt the same way, but I'm currently as far away from home as I could possibly be on the other side of the world and it has taken all of my strength to keep it together and to tell myself to continue on with this trip.  I attended a 2 day mediation course at a local temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand at Wat Suan Dok.  and while talking with the monk, he was explaining that since people in Thailand were Buddhist, they are rarely seen crying at funerals.  They have accepted that death is part of life and something that everyone must go through and some how they are able to detach themselves from feeling the intense pain of mourning the loss of a loved one.  At first, I wished I had that ability.  I wish I could just detach  myself from my emotions and control my thoughts like those Buddhist monks,  it would make it much easier on myself.  But then I realized part of the mourning process is the memories, thinking about that person and the time you've spent with them.  Even though I feel intense sadness for my friends, I am so grateful for the memories I have of them and am ok with having the sadness so that I can now celebrate them.

So now, I will try to continue my blog about my travels here.  Thailand, so far, has been centered around some of the most difficult times of my life.  I was supposed to come here when I was diagnosed with cancer, and now that I've finally made it here, I have lost not one but 2 friends in the short few weeks I've been here.  Someday I will have to return here so that I can feel the joy of this country. Right now my heart is filled to the brim with too much sadness.

So I will start my blog from when I left from Bangkok on my way to Chiang Mia, Thailand which is in northern Thailand.

From Bangkok, I decided to take the night train to Chiang Mai, about 14 hour journey.  I really enjoy train travel and wanted to see what it was like in Thailand, plus I booked a sleeper car with the intention I would actually sleep.

When I arrived at the train station, I piled up on some snacks as I read the food on the train wasn't so good and then went to search for my bed on the train.

I find my car and get in.  A guy working on the train as sort of  server, or steward, I'm not sure what you call them on trains, looks at my ticket and points to a seat.  I see two seat facing each other and motions toward the one on the right as my spot.  Puzzled, I ask if this was a sleeper car and he nodes yes. Then he asks, "beer?" to which I reply, "no".  Now he was puzzled, and repeated, "No beer?" and I said, no, again.  He then asks, "Orange juice?" and I say no and he walks away.  A few minutes later my seat mate arrives, she is a 20 something girl from Finland who is studying in Bangkok for a semester.  She is also traveling to Chiang Mai alone. It was nice to sit with another solo female traveler.  The waiter came back and asked, "beer?" as he looked at my seat mate, Tiia, to which she replied no as well.  He looked very confused.  A few minutes after that a couple boards and sits in the seats across the isle from us, they are both from England. The guy was carrying 4 liters of beer, which I later found out were all for himself as the girl had her own stash of gin her bag.  So when the train guy came back and asked them for beer, they said no, but showed him their own stash, to which he made a sad face.  I had a nice chat with my 3 new seatmates, and they all seemed really nice.   About an hour and a half into the trip, a women started making her way down the train an converted all the seats into beds and pulled down the top beds that were stowed away almost like giant air plane overhead compartments.  I was so ready for bed.
Tiia on the sleeper train

The couple from England head to the food car and come back a few minutes later to tell us there's a big party going on there.  I guess the food car turns in to some kind of disco at night, but I was already tucked into my bed, as was the Tiia.

The train wasn't easy to fall asleep on.  I thought the rocking and click clacking of the train would put me to sleep, but this was an old train that jolted back and forth more tha soft rocking.  Then, at some point in the middle of the night, the party car closed and so all those drunk party goers were kicked out and send back to their sleeper cars.  The couple from England took that as sign to continue the party in our sleeper car full of sleeping people and even invited friend.  Yep, I was woken to loud talking and obnoxious music next to my bed.  For the first 30 minutes I tried to drown them out with white noise on my Ipod and finally I had enough.  I peaked my head out, and they guy instantly saw me.  In the nicest voice I asked them to keep the noise down, and thankfully they did.  I honestly think they were so drunk they didn't realize how loud they were and a little embarrassed when I asked them to keep quiet.  But I was also embarrassed as they were perpetuating the stereotype of drunken westerners. No wonder the train waiter was so confused I didn't want beer, this is what he deals with every night.

We arrived in Chiang Mai around 10am and Tiia and I get a Songtaew, a form of public transportation similar to a Jeepney,  as we were going to different guesthouses, but in the same area.  I was beat, but my room wasn't ready yet so I sat down and had some breakfast.  When I was finished, it still wasn't ready, so I decided to explore the city a little near my guesthouse.  Within a few minutes, I saw several wats, or temples, in the old part of the city.  I've heard such wonderful things about Chiang Mai that many tourists never leave.  I was beyond tired so I only walked around an hour before I couldn't take it any more needed to go back to the guest house hoping my room would be ready and it was! I spent the rest of the day sleeping and got up around dinner time.
Chiang Mai Temple

While exploring, I walked past a little Thai Vegetarian restaurant called Bamboo Bee and so I decided to give it a try.   It did not disappoint!  She had amazing delicious vegetarian Thai food that was cooked fresh in front of you.  I ordered Khao Soi, which is a typical northern Thailand dish.  I asked her if she did cooking classes, and she said, "Yes, you want to come tomorrow morning?"  And so we set up a time and I was excited to cross off on the things on my list for Thailand, a cooking class!

I went back the next morning and Bebee and I spent the entire morning making Pad Thai, Khao Soi, spring rolls and Tom Kha.  Then she showed me how she makes her signature veggie meat out of mushrooms.  I made so much food that iI couldn't finish it all for lunch and she packed it up for me and said, "you come back for dinner to finish this." and put it in her fridge.

Tom Kha

Add caption

Bebee is also in her mid 30's. She lost her parents when she was little and then was raised by her grandmother, who is now deceased.  She has big dreams.  She wants to travel the world and teach people how to cook delicious healthy meals.  She's single and has no children, which is quite unusual in Thailand, but she is extremely independent and resourceful, and people really enjoy being around her.  I ate her place almost every day in Chiang Mai because I knew I was getting the vegetarian version of some traditional Thai dishes that were made from the freshest ingredients so I wouldn't have to worry about food poisoning.  I met several other travelers that became regulars in her restaurant during their short visit and one was helping her create a website for her business. The day I took her cooking class, she asked met to type up a couple of recipes for her as she didn't believe she wrote well enough in English. She is in the works of putting together a cookbook that will be available for download on her website.  If I lived in Chiang Mai, I know Bebee and I would be good friends.  For now, we are Facebook friends.

The next morning I took it slow and just walked around town for a bit orienting myself with Chiang Mai old city and in the afternoon, Tiia and I went to Tiger Kingdom.  Tiger Kingdom is a place that would never exist in the US, it is basically a place full of caged tigers of different ages.  You choose what age group you want to be with and they allow inside of their cage for about 20 minutes.   Tiia and I choose the smallest size, 2-3 month old tigers, as we both thought it was a little scary to be in a cage with full grown tigers, plus we read the big tigers were drugged to keep them docile and we didn't want to be a part of that, even though by simply going to the place was supporting the drugging of tigers.  I had never been that close to a tiger before and to be in  cage with adorable, playful baby tigers was incredible.  Even though they were small, they still had massive claws and teeth.  At one point a very playful tiger climbed into my lap and the trainer freaked out and pushed him off.
Baby Tigers!

Crazy old man

A couple nights later, I met a girl from the US and we were comparing notes about Chiang Mai. She blurted out, "Don't go to Tiger Kingdom."  Embarrassed, I admitted I already went and I braced myself for a lecture about how they drug the animals.  Instead she told me about her friend who was in cage with the full grown tiger and it bit her.  They had to beat the animal to get it off of her and when she got to the hospital the staff there told her about a little boy a tiger had been bitten the previous week. I'm so glad I didn't go in with the big tigers!  I can't believe that place is still open.

When we got back to town, Tiia and I headed down to the Saturday Night Market.  Night Markets are a big deal in Asia, and you can often find some of the best deals on stuff at these markets.  We spent a couple of hours walking through this market before we both ordered fruit smoothies and made our way to east side of town to find the Lady Boy Cabaret.  It was a "free" show, but they insisted you order a drink.  So I decided to order a Pina Colada.  The drink tasted a little funny, but I thought it was just cheap rum.  I only drank about a quarter of it as I started to fell funny.  My stomach was churning and by the end of the show, I knew something was wrong.  I told Tiia I didn't feel well and so we went home.  As soon I walked into my room, I ran to the bathroom and got sick.  I spent the rest of the night very uncomfortable with stomach cramps. I woke up still feeling crappy and with a slight fever and so I decided to play it safe and go to the hospital, again.  Only a week in Thailand and I've made 2 trips to the hospital. Oy vey.  There they told me I had food poisoning and I just had to let it pass.  I had my fingers crossed I would feel fine that next day as I had scheduled to spend the day at Elephant Nature Park.
Snack anyone?

Lady Boy cabaret

I woke up the next day feeling so much better, and I was excited to finally play with some elephants!  There are several elephant parks in Thailand, but I chose Elephant Nature Park because after reading about the abuse the elephants endure while entertaining tourists with rides and shows, I knew I wanted to go to a park that actually cared about the elephants.

This park was founded by a woman named Lek who grew up in a village that used elephants for work. She developed a deep empathy for elephants and started rescuing abused and abandoned elephants.  She now has about 30 elephants that roam freely on a large plot of land and are only there to heal and live out healthy and happy lives.   Several of the elephants were blind, some done by their former Trainers, or Mahouts when they refused to work.  Another elephant was missing part of its back foot from stepping on a land mine on the Myanmar border.  Since the elephants were raised by people, they do not know how to care for themselves and must always be taken care of, so each elephant has a Mahout even the babies have their own mahout.

On the van ride over, then had us watch an extremely sad video about the elephants at the park.  Each one had a story that tugged at your heart.  When got to the park, our guide went over all the rules: Don't touch an elephant unless I say you can.  "Some are very gangster. You see that one?" as he points to an elephant under a tree, "She's super moody, you can only pet her if she is eating."  If an elephant is coming your way, move out of the way, or they might move you out of the way.  Also, touching the babies were a big no no.  They were trying to get the babies used to their mahout and if too many people touched them, they would get confused.
Baby Elephant and his mahout

Big Elephant and her Mahout

We spent the morning feeding the elephants. After lunch they had us watch another movie about how they "break" the elephants into submission for working and riding. It is an incredibly brutal process that starts off with days of torture, sleep deprivation and withholding of food.  The elephants were actually crying, real tears, as this was happening to them.  It was extremely hard to watch.  We all left the room in a very somber mood, but then in the distance you could see herd of elephants coming down to the river for their bath.  "The elephants are never late." said the guide.  "They always know what time it is."  The elephants got into the river and the guide handed us each a bucket to throw water on them  The elephants stood in the water with the look of pure content on their big faces.  
Bathing Time

 We then walked a little further down the river to watch group of elephants with a 6 month old baby bathing in the water.  The baby became curious and came up on the bank to check us out and ran back and forth between the crowds in a clumsily toddler-like way.   At the end of the day, our guide told us we have to get back to the main hut because the elephants are never late and another group will want their snack.  This time a baby of 1.5 years with his mom and nanny were coming for snack.  More than the mother raises the babies, usually the babies have 2 or 3 other female elephants helping raise him.  This baby was fun to watch.  Our guide told us to stay away form him as he was very very naughty.  We ended the day feeding the elephants yet another snack before we all got in the van to head back to the city.  Being with those giant creatures was definitely a highlight of my trip.

The following day, on Tuesday, I signed up to do an over night meditation course at a temple, Wat Suan Dok.  There were about 40 other tourists doing the course and they transported us out of the city to a quite mediation retreat.  We spent the next 2 days learning about Buddhism and meditation.  It was also this day that I found out Keith had a heart attack and so it was extremely difficult to quiet my mind.

We learned 4 different types of concentration meditation: Sitting, standing, walking and laying.  We had 2 young monks, age 26, who were actually from Myanmar, but came to Thailand to go to Buddhist University. They have been monks since age 13.  Almost all men in Thailand become monks at some point in their lives, even if it is or a few short days.  Some stay in longer than others, but they are allowed to leave at any time with out any stigma.  These 2 young monks said they really like being Buddhist monks, but they aren't sure if they will be one forever, but right now they like it.

Monks in Thailand aren't allowed to touch women and they aren't vegetarian like the monks in China.  The monks in Thailand get their food by going out to gather morning "alms" in the early morning from the local villagers.  They only eat twice a day.  The monks in China will eat three times a day, but they cook their own food.

The young monk explained the importance of mediation.  He asked us what would happen if you didn't shower for a week. "You be really dirty, right?"  Same with your mind, he said,  you need meditation to clean your mind and to learn how to better control you thoughts and emotions.  Boy, do I have a lot to clear out of this mind.  I don't think 2 days is nearly enough time.  He then taught us the 4 different types of mediation and we practiced in a group.  After about an hour and a half got a break until dinner time and so we all sleepily got up and wandered out in the court yard.  At meditation retreats, they require you to wear only white clothes, so here were 40 people all dressed in white wandering aimlessly in different directions without saying a word to each other unsure of what they were supposed to do.  It looked like I was watching a bunch of insane people walking around the court year of a mental hospital. It took all of my strength to not bust out laughing. \

I met really nice people a this retreat, people more my age or older.  It seems most travelers in Thailand are backpackers that are in their early 20's.  On this retreat I particularly connected with a group people who seemed to be around my age and after the retreat I took them to my favorite restaurant, Bamboo Bee Vegetarian restaurant.  We talked about our lives, one of the guys was also an RPCV while one of the girls has always wanted to join the Peace Corp.  We talked about traveling and life, dreams and hopes.  Most travelers I've met got sick of their lives and desperately needed a change, so off they went.  They also don't know what they're going to do when they get back and are quite confused about the direction they want to take their life.  It's nice to be surrounded by people who are just as confused as I am.

I go back to my room at Mountain View Guesthouse and was getting ready for bed when the front desk calls to tell me Kimberly had arrived.  Kimberly is a friend of my sister who has been traveling around Asia.  We had agreed to meet the next morning so I was confused why she had come to my guesthouse at 11pm.  Apparently the owner of the guest house she was supposed to stay at was quite snarky and threw her out when Kimberly asked to see the room first. That's one major difference I've noticed in Thailand compared to the Philippines.  You would never see Filipinos express anger, that is considered to be a poor sign of character to not control your emotions in public, but I've seem quite a few Thais yelling at each other on the streets.  I told her she could stay with me as my room had 2 beds, plus I was getting a little lonely traveling by myself. It was nice to have a companion for a few days.

On Thursday we went up to Wat Doi Suthep, a temple on top of a mountain. It was a really pretty temple and we both got a blessing from a monk who sprinkled water on us, said a prayer for good luck and gave me a white sting bracelet for good luck. I noticed a lot of little tiny bells with peoples names or sayings on them hanging all over the temple.  I asked what they were for, and I was told for good luck.  So I bought a bell and wrote all the names of people I could think of who were struggling with their health and hug it up. Unfortunately, since I hung that up, 2 of them have passed.  I hope at least they passed peacefully.

When we got back, we decided to make a reservation to do a guided hike and bike.  The brochure described it as a 3 hour walk and then a 2 hour down hill mountain bike ride. It sounded fun, and not too strenuous with a nice leisurely lunch in the middle and ending at a beautiful lake for a swim.

On Thursday, We also had a Thai massage.  We both had never had one, and I'm not sure I like them.  It was actually more painful than comfortable.  At one point the women was in the air on top of me as she pushed own on my spin with her hands to thrust herself up to crack my back, so far, I'm not a fan of Thai Massages.

Then next morning we get up, I have a big breakfast and am excited for the day.  We get to the bike shop and they guide asks me if I've ever mountain biked, which I said no, and he shook his head.  I was scared. he then smiled and said, "don't worry, I'll help you!" There were different groups of people for different trips of different difficulty levels.  We were in a group of about 10 people.

We started off the hike on nice rolling paths, nothing too strenuous. That's when he told us we would be hiking 11 kilometers.  I was scared again.  We went several kilometers when the guide asked if we wanted to see the water fall, we all said yes.  He warned, "ok, but we have to go down and then up, Ok?"  "O.K." We all said he then turns down a path, that was barely marked with incredibly steep down hill.  The whole time I kept thinking, "If we're going down, that means we have to go up"

The waterfall was, well, cute, but nothing special.  We hung out there for a few minutes before he started up a different path where for a couple of kilometers we had to scramble our way out.  I didn't sign up for climbing.  And soon, I was the lagging hiker with the guide lagging behind with me.  I turned and apologized to him, I told him my endurance and stamina isn't the same as it used to be. He asked why, so I told him.  He completely understood as his dad had died of cancer recently.  He said to take as many breaks as possible.  Then he scrambled ahead of me, blew his whistle and yelled at the others to hurry up.  He did these little bootcamp- drill-Sargent commands once in a while, i think more to get a laugh from people.  A girl from Canada always yelled back at him, "stop yelling at me!" and then he would wait for me, grab my hand and pull me up a few meters until we reached the spot where it leveled out.  We had a few more difficult climbs and my heart was definitely racing.  He then split the group in two, sent the more able bodied hikers with his assistant while he took the rest of us on the easy route. He told us about this one time a Chinese lady couldn't finish the climb so he had to carry her.  We finally made it to the top at a Hmong village where a nice bowl of hot noodle soup was waiting for us.  Art, the guide, grabbed my water bottle and filled it with ice cold water.  As soon as we were done eating, they unloaded the bikes, gave us each bikes, helmets, knee pads and elbow pads.  He gave us a quick lesson on mountain biking and off we went.  Again, he split us into two groups with Art taking us down the easier path.
The Gang

I had never mountain biked before, but I've road bike plenty last year.  I didn't realize how different the two were. And since we were mostly going down hill, it was terrifying and I spent the majority of the time clutching my breaks. Right in the beginning my bike slipped on a patch of leaves sending me to hop of my bike and leaving my bike smashing into the ground.  That only made me go even slower, even though Art kept yelling at me to take my hands off the break.  At one point, since I was so scared the entire time, I had to pee so bad.  When I get nervous or anxious, I have to pee a lot for some reason.  Since I was the last one, I just stopped my bike, looked around and peed on the side of the road.  Thankfully we were in the middle of no where.

We then come to a clearing and he asks if we want to go eat some strawberries, which, duh, of course and we veered off the road down another side road to a big strawberry patch with the sweetest strawberries.  Even the strawberries that didn't look ripe, that were still mostly white were really sweet.  It was a nice treat to a stressful day.  We then start our way back down and once again I lose control of my bike and once again I was able to hop off before it smashed to the ground.   I was ready for the day to be over. I get back on my bike and my seat falls off.  and I say, "Oh F*&k"  Art calls back, "I heard that, what did you do?"  He comes over, tries to fix my seat, which he couldn't and then ends up trading seats with me and rigging the broken one to his bike.  He assured me we were almost there.  Then all of a sudden we come around a corner and there is the lake! I was sooooo happy, and it was on a paved road.  I was very thankful the day was over.  I was beat. I was so tired that I couldn't make myself eat anything or get in the water for a swim.  I just sat there sipping water and cokes to cool off.
Strawberry Patch

 Kimberly and I had originally planned on going to Pai the next day, but I told I probably would need a recovery day before we headed there.  So she signed up to do a cooking class the next morning and I allowed myself to just sleep in.
Kimberly and I going to Pai!

Friday, March 7, 2014

4 Keith

I've lived abroad for more than 4 years, and now that I am traveling for only a few months, I have never felt so far away from home.  Missing events like wedding or birthdays were hard when I was thousands of miles away, but when the people I care about are suffering I feel so helpless being so far away, and now another wonderful friend is hanging on to his life (EDIT: Keith passed away on March 7, 2014).

I first met Keith when I joined one of my besties, Barb, to watch rugby in West Rutland.  Keith and Barb's husband, Matt, played together for the Rutland Roosters.  I really enjoyed watching Rugby and being around the members of the club, so when a women's team formed, I jumped at the chance. I then soon became friends with Keith's wife, Janet.  Keith is a man that everyone likes and has not one mean word to say about anyone.   He loves kids as he works with them both in the public school system and as a loyal coach and referee.  He especially shines when working with kids with disabilities as he is able to connect with them on a level that most people have difficulty reaching.  You could always count on Keith - at school, on the pitch, in everyday life.  When I was going through treatment, he and Janet were at every event to support me.

Keith wearing a special pink jersey in my honor during treatment
Barb, Keith, me and Pam

On Monday, Keith ran a half marathon, well, because he loves to run. He wasn't in a race, he just wanted to run 13.1 miles on his daily run.  He ran at least 2 marathons last year and runs every single day.  He is probably in more shape than most people my age and he is in his 50's. He once did a burpee challenge to get himself to do an insane amount of burpees in one day, I'm inclined to say his goal was 1000, but as I write that it seems completely impossible.  Could a human being really do 1000 burpees? Maybe my memory is wrong, but I know it was an amount that made people gasp in horror when he would tell them.  And he always reached his goal.  

Doing what he loves, running

On Tuesday he set out of another jog to the polling station to cast his vote as a good citizen and as he arrived, he collapsed.  Keith had a heart attack.  How the hell does a man who is in the best cardiac shape of anyone I know have a heart attack?  Life is so completely unpredictable and so not within our control.

Keith and I 
His heart was stabilized, but when he collapsed he hit his head and smashed his skull.  He has been in a medically induced coma since.  Today, I woke to an email explaining that his last scan showed even more signs of bleeding and his doctors are now talking to Janet about keeping him comfortable and encouraging her to donate his organs.
Janet and Keith

This man, this kind gentle soul, someone the world needs, is now on his way out.  And once again, I am stunned and so stricken with sadness it doesn't seem right to be traveling and exploring the world when he will never be able to do that again and while Janet is in such excruciating grief.   Keith shouldn't be the one who is leaving us now. Why does the world get rid of those that are most needed and wanted?  I should be there for my friends, and I'm not.  I'm too far away.  I need to take a few days to re-examine my trip. I feel so helpless being this far away when my friends are suffering.

For now, please keep Keith and Janet in your thoughts and prayers and hope for a miracle.  He needs more time on earth, not just because I don't want to lose a friend, but because some many people, especially kids, count on him.  He put his heart into everything - School, kids, sports, friends, family, running - that it is a devastating irony it's his heart that has failed him. However, there isn't a person out there that could say that he ever failed them.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Bangkok, Thailandia: From RuPaul to Russian Prostitute

Finally, I've made it to Thailand.  In case you don't know (but I've probably mentioned this a million times in this blog but don't remember - chemo brain) coming to Thailand is a pretty big deal or me.  I was supposed to come here about a year and a half ago with my sister and brother-in-law, but 10 days before I was supposed to get on a plane, I was told I had cancer.

So I finally stepped foot in Bangkok on Sunday...... sick.

I got off the plane feeling exhausted and having a lot of trouble breathing.  I knew I was in trouble when I couldn't eat dinner that night.  I took my temperature and had a slight fever, 99, which is normally nothing alarming, but for someone with still a slightly compromised immune system it can quickly snowball into a monster, so I decided to watch it and if got any higher, I would see a doctor.

I was lucky enough to be able to crash at Justin and Marlo's place in Bangkok.  Justin also served in the Peace Corps in the Philippines and he met Marlo while serving.  Now they both teach in Thailand, but will hopefully be moving to the US later this year.
Justin, me and Marlo!

Early Monday morning, I took my temperature again and it had risen to 100.  An hour later it was up to 101.  Justin had taken the day off from work to show me around Bangkok, and given my condition, the first thing we toured was the local hospital.  Not an awesome start to my time in Thailand.

We walk up to the counter and the women looks at us and says, "no sa-peak engish." and points towards a separate waiting room.  We enter and a translator was sitting there waiting for foreign visitors.  After filling out some basic paperwork, we are sent to another waiting room.  We sat there for a few minutes until a nurse came over an took my vitals.  A few minutes later a nurse came over with a paper and pointed to my name, which I nodded yes, and she escorted me to tiny examination room where an older doctor was already waiting for me.  I told him my symptoms, which I kinda already knew it was a respiratory infection, but I also mentioned I was in a dengue infested area of the Philippines, so the doc decided I should be tested for that just in case.  From that room, I was escorted to the blood draw lab where a women was waiting for me and immediately drew my blood and was informed it would take an hour to get my results.   I didn't have dengue fever, but it did show my white blood cells were low.  I've been told it may take years before that goes back to normal.  The doctor wrote up a list of medications and gave me a bill.  I was then escorted to another waiting area to pay my bill and pick up my prescriptions.  The whole thing cost around $80.

We then went home and Justin put on RuPaul's Drag Race, which we watched until we went to bed.  I ate some rice and a few potatoes from the curry Marlo made and was noticing I was starting to feel better.

I woke up the next day, no fever, no aches, but still not much of an appetite.  I decided I was going to take it easy for the day and only planned on going to the train station to get a ticket for a train Chiang Mai the next night.  By the time I got back I was so worn out that I took a nap until Justin and Marlo got home from work.  Later that night, they took me to nice restaurant to have some delicious Thai food, my stomach was still not quite right so I was only able to eat only a portion of my green curry, but it was yummmy!  We then wondered around a little mall where i picked up a really nice black silk tie set for my dad, something he might be able to wear for my brother's wedding.  Silk here is extremely cheap here.

I decided I would get up early  the next morning to go see come temples in the city.  As I was weaving through the little alleys to go to the sky train station, a man pushing a cart of woven mats flags me down.  He opens up a mat, shows it to me and then takes out a piece of paper.  He writes down a number, and then hands the pen and paper over to me. I write down counter offer.  He shakes his head no, and writes down a counter offer and then I take the paper and write down another counter offer and he smiles and shakes his head yes.  So I bought it.  I didn't want the mat, and I don't really have room for it in my luggage, but I bought it because once you start negotiating, you are kinda expected to purchase once a number has been agreed on.  it cost about $8 so I decided it wasn't too much to worry about.  But now I was stuck carrying this dang mat around with me all day.

Before I go up the sky train I find the coffee lady, some of the best ice-coffee I have ever had is here in Thailand and there are little carts all over the place.  And it is REAL coffee, not the fake instant stuff you get in the Philippines or Chile.

 I take the train all the way to the river where I buy a ticket for a river taxi to Wat Pho, a famous temple in Bangkok.  My very first temple ever, and I was excited.

Wat Pho is much larger than I expected.  I knew it was famous for the large reclining Buddha.  (Buddha in Thailand is skinny, not fat like the Chinese buddha.)
Buddha and I

When you enter a temple, you are required to take off your shoes and women must also wear clothing that covers their legs and shoulders.

I first entered the temple with the humongous reclining Buddha, it was much larger than I imagined and quite breath taking.  It is stretched out in the middle of the building laying on its side.  You first walk along side down the front and then to the back side where I spot a table lined with little cups of coins for 20 baht.  A Thai couple pick up a cup each and give  women sitting behind the table 20 baht and turn to Buddha and begin praying.
Lady collecting money for the coins

Praying couple

When they leave I ask the women what they were doing.  She told me to take a cup and say a prayer to the buddha, then when you go to leave the building, you put on coin in each of the pots that lined the back side of the buddha for good luck.  No one else was around, so I decided I would give it a try.  The woman watched me curiously, I don't think many foreign tourists actually participate.  I looked at the Buddha and started to say a prayed when I was overwhelmed by emotion.  It came out of know where, and I'm still not quite sure why it happened.  Maybe it was such a long time coming Thailand, maybe it was because I've always been curious of Buddhism because it seems like a religion, or philosophy that speaks to me.

My cup of coins

When I prayed, I didn't really pray to anything, but myself.  I asked myself to seek out my path and to find the signs I need to know I am on the right path.

I then began down the line of pots and threw a coin in each one, there must have been at least 50 pots.
I dropped the coins in these pots for good luck

I  continued to wander the grounds of Wat Po, there was courtyard after courtyard of gold Buddhas, it was quite impressive.  I then wandered into another temple that had a soft carpeted rug for kneeling or sitting.  When in a temple, you should never point your feet at Buddha when sitting, so you can either kneel, sit Indian style or sit with your legs to the side.  I found a little spot on the floor and lingered in that temple for a good 15 minutes.  I felt incredible peace in there.
There were so many courtyards with these Buddhas
Peaceful temple

I wandered around a few more courtyards before I started making my way to the exit.  Just before the exit was a gift shop selling miniature Buddhas and other trinkets.  What caught my eye were these beautiful paintings on sheets of silk.  The lady quoted me a price, and wasn't willing to negotiate.  It only cost around $10, which I thought was great deal. Then as soon as I step foot outside of the temple a women comes running up to with an arm load of these silk paintings, first giving me an outrageous price and then in desperation as I am ignoring her she yells out, "4 for $500!"  I stop in my tracks, I had just paid 1 for 300 baht, so 4 for 500 baht was an incredible deal, and so I bought them.  Marlo told me when I got back to the apartment that I could buy those for less than 100 a piece in the market.  I am such a sucker.
In Wat Pho

After Wat Po I took a river taxi across to Wat Arun, an older temple that you climb a couple flights of stairs to get an excellent view.  The stairs were no joke and not for people who are afraid of heights.  They were incredibly steep. I huffed my way up, snapped a few photos and slowly made my way back down.  As I was exiting the temple, I pass by a few market stalls selling various souvenirs and  a skirt caught my eye.  I ask the man how much and he first says 350.  Then he says, for you, 300.  I asked if he can do 200 and he points to another skirt, one of those ugly hippy skirts and I say no.  The skirt is a beautiful wrap skirt made from cotton that went past my knees so I could wear in temples.  I simply loved it and for $10 I thought it was a good buy, and so I bought it.  on the way out I see the same kind of ties I bought my dad and I asked how much.  He was selling them 3 times the amount I had just paid. I looked at my purchase and realized I had probably just paid 3 times the amount for that skirt.  Suckered again.
Wat Arun
Wat Arun's extremely steep stairs

View of the river taxis from Wat Arun
I then get back on the train to head back to the apartment.  From the train I could see a protest happening and I felt extremely relieved I was up in the sky and passing it very quickly.  A lot of violence has erupted during these protests.  I spot Marlo on the same train, and walked up to him.  He was on his was back from work.  He mentioned the protest and that he had accidentally be caught in it, but was able to quickly get away.  When I got back I showed him everything I bought and tried on the skirt, to which he replied, "oh, I really like those colors! It is really pretty.  You look like a Russian prostitute in it."  Filipino compliments are an art form, you are always left feeling like you've been praised and bashed all in the same breath.  We both burst out laughing.  He did reassure me though that I got a great deal for my mat.
I love this!