Starfield Unicorns

That’s the name of my fantasy hockey team. I’m playing fantasy hockey because it is my nephew’s wish – how could I not?

I won’t lie, I’m writing this blog so I can have a url with this photo, because I need a team photo and I don’t know how else to do it. But it’s also a great placeholder – someday I should write about this summer. The extreme highs, the lower lows, and the high wire walk back to normalcy I’ve been attempting the past 3 months. This photo is from that balancing act, in McCarthy.

But for now, go Unicorns!!

team unicorn

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Covenant House Sleep Out 2015

CHA Sleep Out 2015                 Opening doors for homeless youth

Thank you SO MUCH to everyone who supported the Covenant House Young Professional Sleep Out event this year! This came in the form of donations, volunteers, and thoughtful offers to deliver hot drinks throughout the night. The event raised $53,187, all of which will go to support Alaska’s homeless youth. Great job donating, everyone!

My education started a couple weeks before the event, when participants were invited to go on an outreach tour. Covenant House staff drove us around Anchorage, pointing out places they often go to talk to youth to let them know about Covey as a resource and share some brown bag lunches. Some of these were places I expected, but many more caught me by surprise. Also shocking were the stories of human trafficking and prostitution they told us. I suppose I’ve been very sheltered and naïve in my view of what commonly goes on, here and in every other city where I’ve lived. Eye-opening, for sure.

The night of the sleep out we arrived just before 7pm with our puffy coats and sleeping bags. There were 23 of us “sleepers,” as well as Covey staff and volunteers. We were split into four groups to do a tour of the facility, a CHA's clothing for kidswalking outreach tour, a string exercise demonstrating how easy it is for a youth to lose connection with every support system they may have, and a small group session where three courageous youth involved in Covenant House’s Rights of Passage* shared their stories with us. The new facility is beautiful (and always accepting donations of clothing, toiletries, backpacks, headphones, and volunteers!), the string exercise was so helpful to understand Covey’s process of connecting with kids, and hearing the stories from the youth blew me away. Courage, perseverance, strength, hope – they are inspirational from my view, and yet for them it is simply necessary for survival.
*Rights of Passage is a transitional living program for youth 18-21 that promotes self-reliance and offers services to help them successfully work toward an independent lifestyle through gainful employment

Afterwards the full group came together again for a snack of chili and cornbread (thank snackyou Beans Café!), and we heard from a young woman about her experiences with the foster care system. Her story involved a few stays at Covenant House (in fact, at any given time, 60% of the kids at Covey are in foster care. Whoa!). She is now quite a success, working for the state to improve Alaska’s foster care system and part of a national advocacy group that flies her across the country to speak in support of a better system throughout the United States. She also led a garbage bag activity, which had us sleepers write down our top five most important things in life and slowly have to throw them all away. It was so impactful, and made me want to hug every child who’s ever been a ward of the state and tell them how much I love them. And still, what difference would that make?? Despite being National Happiness Day, we were all feeling quite heavy. Time to go outside.

We had a discussion around the fire in the courtyard lead by a former Covey resident turned employee; gratitude, privilege, a desire to do more to help, humility, and ignorance were all themes shared by many. How little we know about things happening all around us; how little we see when we do not make an effort to look.

Sometime after 1am I turned in for the night. We had relatively cushy sleeping arrangements: we were outside on the lawn in Covenant House’s fenced-in courtyard, so safety wasn’t something we needed to even consider, and no one ever came and told us we needed to move on; the staff had spread tarps on the ground, and made little cardboard my digs for the nightbox shelters for each of us; volunteers walked around during the night to make sure we weren’t too cold; we all had sleeping bags. I slept in all my clothes and wrapped a tarp over me inside my cardboard home and used a water bottle as a pillow. I woke often, mostly due to being in cramped quarters. I was so thankful to be 33, as I have to imagine the cold hard ground just gets colder and harder with age, and I thought often about all our community’s homeless who were outside that night throughout town, potentially alone, with no thoughts of a warm bed waiting at home to bring them any comfort. Heart breaking.

We packed up our stuff around 7am and the sleeperswent inside for a hot breakfast (thanks volunteers!). We stretched our stiff muscles, we smiled and hugged and patted ourselves on the back for doing for 5 hours what so many people have to do all night, every night. We made mental commitments to try to do more to raise awareness and to donate to Covenant House, and then we walked to our cars and drove to our homes where many of us probably took hot showers and naps. I am grateful to have participated, and even more thankful that Covenant House exists and is so good at what it does. I am not under the impression that I now know what it’s like to be homeless, but I did have my eyes opened a bit, and I hope to start seeing more of the hidden population all around me. I will continue to support Covenant House, the Brother Francis Shelter, Clare House, Bean’s Café, the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, and other organizations in town doing the incredibly important work of serving the most vulnerable among us. Thank you again for your support, I am so blessed.faith          sunrise

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Bangkok, day 1

So much to say! Only two and a half days here but we squeezed in a good amount of sights. After checking into our hotel (Parinda!), Shannon and I cleaned up and went out for a nice, blessedly air conditioned* dinner at Soul Food. So, so delicious. Very highly recommended if you find yourself in Bangkok.

The next day (after dropping off our jungle laundry to be washed, ironed, folded and surprisingly fragranced), we set off for the Chatuchak weekend market, a place with over 15,000 stalls, one of the largest markets in the world. Thankfully it was also steaming hot and humid, so we were quickly overwhelmed. Though there were far more stalls, we seemed unable to find some of the items we’d made note of in Chiang Mai to buy later, and people here were much less willing to bargain. After buying a couple gifts, I convinced myself it was only because they were already offering rock bottom prices!

We were there nearly 3 hours, and completely exhausted by the time we got back to the hotel. Pool time, delicious Indian dinner at a place recommended by J.R. (because he coincidentally stayed on the very same street last May!!), and I left to do a bit more marketing and town-checking-out. The woman at our hotel sent me towards a night market that, lucky me, coincided with a red light district! Elephant pants and tiger shows galore. On the subway on the way home, I realized more and more that people are different, yet very much the same, everywhere.

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*a note about air conditioning and other luxuries. In the jungle, zenned out on yoga, you almost convince yourself you don’t really miss things like air conditioning, heated water for showers that you can leave on while sudsing up, and the assurance of knowing you won’t find any head-size spiders, bats or cats in your room. But we did miss these luxuries, and appreciated the heck out of them upon our return.

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The Sanctuary Thailand

So here it is, our last night at The Sanctuary Thailand, and I’m only just now getting around to writing about it. It’s understandable, it’s been a very strenuous week full of yoga sessions, massages, healthy meals, foot reflexology, GIANT spiders, sunny days on a sandy beach, a facial, a mountain jungle hike, fruit smoothies, hammocks, monkeys we could hear but not see, multiple daily power outages, chanting, tropical rainstorms, bats, meditation, hot and sticky temperatures with no A/C, an open mic night, authentic movement, lessons about chakra, mosquito nets, and tea. Phew!

At first we thought the toughest part was getting here, as the rain started during our flight to Koh Samui and continued, with very large waves, during our ferry to Koh Phangan. We could find neither a boat nor a jeep willing to make the last leg of the journey to our particular cove (from Haad Rin to Haad Thien) so we had to stay the night. Turns out we arrived at the tail end of a monsoon. The next morning Shannon and I caught a small boat (Bradford hiked – what an animal!). It was certainly quite choppy but they were happy to take us; 30 minutes after we left we passed our cove and got dropped at the next one up as the waves were too big to pull in to shore at our beach. Shannon and I hiked the rest of the way, and were thrilled to find the Sanctuary (and to drink the ginger lime juices they presented us!), and glad to see Bradford arrive safely soon after.

We realize now, on the eve of our planned departure (so long as another monsoon doesn’t blow in overnight), that the toughest part was not the journey to arrive, but will be in having to leave. Next stop: Bangkok!

(Sorry dadda, no southern cross in sight…)

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Elephant Nature Park

So much to say about Elephant Nature Park! Too much to include here, but to start:

– they currently have 41 elephants there that they’ve saved, mostly purchased from trekking camps, logging camps across the border in Burma, or used for begging on the streets of Bangkok. Some are there after having been hurt too badly to continue working (by stepping on land mines, logging accidents, a couple blinded by abuse from previous owners, a trap in the jungle, and one case of severely dislocated hips from attempted forced breeding and an ensuing battle). Also, a few babies, one an orphan whose mother was shot for stealing food from a village, and a couple born at the park! They are hoping to heal some of them and slowly prepare them for reintroduction to the jungle, first the males because they’ll have to fight their way into a herd and the extra strength and tusks will help with that, then hopefully some females who the male will recognize and invite in till the herd. Most of the elephants in the park are female.

– they say elephants helped to build the cities here, because they were used for logging and construction jobs. When logging was banned in Thailand not long ago (I forget? The 90s?) thousands of elephants were suddenly without jobs. They started carrying tourists around, or taking fruit from tourists who paid to feed them in big cities while being blinded by flash photography. And the process to break an elephant’s spirit, for logging or trekking purposes, is so heartbreaking. Days chained up in a tiny pen, being beaten and starved. Legs chained together and forced to walk. Terrible things.

– at Elephant Nature Park, instead of elephants being used to amuse humans, here we are around to amuse them! No riding. We do get to feed them (pumpkins, watermelon, bananas, papaya) and bathe them (by tossing bucket after bucket of water on them in the river while they eat), and watch them just be elephants. We went on multiple walks to various locations where different herds were grazing, we got to see some babies playing, and the highlight was watching a group of them bathe themselves in the river. They loved it! So playful and trumpeting and rolling around. I loved it, too.

– Shannon and I got the two day experience so we slept out at the park in nice rooms with mosquito nets for the beds. We awoke to a cacophony of animal sounds (the Park is also home to hundreds of rescued cats and dogs, water buffalo, plus there are plenty of chickens and roosters around) and to an elephant eating her corn just outside our patio! Later she crossed the river, and her mahout (guardian/caretaker, each elephant has her own) had to swim across the river to bring her back.

– we also learned that some other camps are starting to be more conscious about their elephant tourism, and across the river one place lead elephant jungle hikes where, instead of riding the elephants, tourists can instead walk with them deep into the jungle, watch them eat and hang out awhile, then walk back. Win-win.

All in all, it was a remarkable experience, getting to feed and pet and simply bear witness to the lives of these gentle, noble creatures. Very, very worth the trip. IMG_1835.JPG

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The festivals

The festivals were so lovely, everything felt so happy, joyous and free! After dinner we walked to the Ping River for the first part, then sending of lighted vessels down the water. We bought our Krathong from a stand on the side of the road – beautiful floats made from a cross-section of banana tree, decorated with intricately folded banana leaves and colorful flowers, and holding candles and incense sticks. We walked along the river watching the first Krathong float by and checking out vendors making more and more of them, plus all the meats on a stick you could ever want! When we got to the next bridge we went to the river bank, lit our lightables to respect Buddha, and sent our Krathong and our resentments down the waters of the Ping. Freedom! Glorious.

Next we walked into the center of Chiang Mai, through the gates, to float ourselves some khom loi. We walked through a park overseen by a blinged out monk statue (where soon after the power went out), then headed toward the starting point of the stream of floating lanterns beginning to fill the sky. We walked into some temple grounds and bought our lanterns, a kind young monk helped us properly light them, we crouched low to the ground while they filled with heat, and then – !!! Release! Up up and away floated our merit! Magical.

Our duty complete, the rest of the evening was spent watching: the parade of floats, beauty queens, musicians and religious groups; fireworks; thousands of people smiling, laughing, enjoying themselves; other lanterns float into the sky and down the river; everything and everyone bathed in the light of the full moon. So much gratitude, love and light. Happy Yi Peng / Loy Krathong!!

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Outside the city

What a day!! After breakfast we called Rachata to drive us to a couple sights outside the city. The roads were full of cars, mopeds, tuktuks, bicycles, pedestrians and dogs, and were narrow and windy up in the foothills outside Chiang Mai, and I was very glad it was Rachata driving and not me.

First we went to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a sacred temple established in 1383. The location was chosen by placing a Buddha relic on the back of a white elephant, which wandered the mountain until it died at the ‘chosen’ spot. To reach the temple one must climb 306 steps, intended as an act of meditation. Once within the monastery compound we saw beautiful, ornate Buddhas, a glorious golden chedi that enshrines the relic, and a golden umbrella honoring the city’s independence from Burma. Shannon and I participated in the line of people who walked around the chedi in quiet mediation, then the three of us took in views of the city from high above.

Next we went to the Phra Tamnak Bhu Bhing, the royal family’s winter palace. It had been raining all day and did not let up here, and as we walks the grounds the clouds became a must all around us. The weren’t many other visitors, and my favorite point was being alone at the reservoir gifted to a queen for her 72nd birthday, which was surrounded by intricate landscaping, had dancing fountains within, had soft music playing, and was overall quite magical. Then Bradford fell in front of the tallest bamboo we’ve ever seen and we went on our way.

Back in the city I had my suits altered, we ate at Lemongrass (recommended by our hotel friend and owned by the guy who owns Lemongrass in Fairbanks! Small world), and then, the festivals!! So very fantastic, but that will have to wait. Off to care for elephants. Thanks for reading!

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