Evaluating Education: High Stakes Testing and Teacher Responsibilities

“I think by far the most important bill in the whole code of mankind is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness…Preach, a crusade against ignorance; establish & improve the law for educating the common people.” -Thomas Jefferson
 
Form 6, Pre-University Students

Form 6, Pre-University Students at SMK Maran

        As many might know, much of my time in Malaysia was spent analyzing education. Besides being able to visit obscure locals,  be invited to awkward family meals, and learn first-hand the meaning of the phrase “The Village Freak”, I was also able to conduct a helpful diagnostic  of educational issues. Though much of my time has been spent as a teacher and community organizer  most of my time has been bent towards understanding international education.

Starting from block one, my experience has led me to the conclusion that students are the same. Kids are kids. That goes for every student, regardless of race, religion, socioeconomic status or whatever geopolitical boundary they might find themselves in. The same needs, ambitions and thirst to learn can be found in every school. Even though students may be similar however, school systems are obviously different. How we provide for needs, ambitions and thirsts vary. Now that the year has come to a close, I have had some time to take a more holistic and in-depth look at my time being a part of the Malaysian education system. Here is a brief overview of some of my findings.

Form 1 English Camp, ages 12-13

Form 1 English Camp “ROCK”, ages 12-13

Let me first be clear that commonalities are everywhere between the Malaysian and American systems. And from a political standpoint education holds the same weight.  Malaysia is a country that loves its children and has made education principally a public good, championed by Prime Minister Mahathir in 1996, and is committed to opening the avenues of education to all people.  Many strides have been taken even this year to level the educational playing field across regions, race and gender. In fact, the number of woman and girls in all levels of school now exceed those of men and boys, thus making them the most gender equal system of education in the Muslim world. However, a number of differences are still glaring.

High Stakes Testing:

Saying that students are essentially the same everywhere means that with their strengths also comes their weaknesses. Accountability is an issue that all students struggle with. Consequently, how best to make students accountable for their own learning and behavior is a major task that schools must undertake.

Students performing their end-of-the-year test

Students performing their end-of-the-year test

In America, standardized tests are a common tool for gauging student’s achievement, but they don’t often create accountability at the student level. Meaning, the term “high stakes testing” usually applies to, and has the greatest ramifications, on teachers, school districts and States. Rarely do standardized test hold students accountable for their own learning achievement in the U.S. With college admissions tests like the ACT or SAT being the exception, students don’t generally study for standardized tests like Michigan’s MME or Iowa’s ITBS for example. These tests have a purpose other than holding individual students accountable; they hold teachers, school districts and States accountable. Most students don’t remember their scores (I sure don’t) as they don’t calculate into your cumulative GPA and aren’t looked at by institutions of higher education. This is not the case in Malaysia.

“High Stakes Testing” in Malaysia is the sole gage of student achievement and accountability. Teacher based, or school based, or even State based tests are very rare if not nonexistent. The students entire year, or more, as well as their grades depend on a series of standardized tests: the PMR for students in Form 3 (ages 12-14), the SPM for students in Form 5 (ages 16-17) and the STPM for students in pre-university Form 6 (ages 19-20). And yes, for those keeping score at home there are essentially no significant tests for students age 12, 15, or 18.

This emphasis on testing certainly holds students accountable for their performance and at the same time these tests scores provide a common thread from student, to school, to district and the state when it comes to accountability. The idea is to have a uniform system of tests so that all students can be evaluated equally and districts and states are held to the same standards nationally. This tool for all-encompassing accountability is a carryover from the British system; many government institutions are very similar in likeness to those established by the British in the 1950’s. That being said, however, as I recall studying at Liverpool University in 2011, students in many secondary schools do not give their standardized test has much stress because they are coupled with teacher given grades at the end of each year. In this sense Malaysia’s system might be slightly more antiquated, in that, very little diversity in assessment is given.  As a result the whole of the academic year, lessons, after school activities and competitions of every kind, are geared towards this testing period. And as you might guess, these testing weeks are extremely tense and essentially shut down the school for all students, as the ensuing results hold life altering ramifications for students, and substantial rewards OR punishments for schools.

Corporal Punishment: 

A more visceral difference can be seen when it comes to holding students accountable for their behavior. In the United States, incentive based education theory took roots in the in the 1980’s and 90’s, and by-in-large is the commonly accepted form of promoting good behavior and accountability. Though near extinct in the U.S., corporal punishment is exceedingly common in the developing world, particularly Southeast Asia. It was not uncommon to see a student, usually male, being hit. This type of reprimand is cultural and generally excepted, but its obviously quite upsetting when observed by the Western eye.  Books, canes and open palms are used often to make sure students are thoroughly humiliated enough to prevent whatever offense they performed from happening again. This was a particularly difficult issue for me to address, but despite scientific studies that disprove such punishment as effective, this was a practice steeped in tradition and had staunch proponents. It did, however, provide a powerful effect on good student behavior in large assembly settings

Teacher Responsibilities: 

Teachers in the "Bilik Guru", Teachers Lounge at SMK Maran

Teachers in the “Bilik Guru”, Teachers Lounge at SMK Maran

The responsibilities of the teacher are another major difference. The teacher’s role as a vehicle of information through creativity is minimized, and the teacher’s role as an administrator of State produced information and lessons are enlarged. Essentially every teacher’s class is audited by higher administration and, therefore, teachers are exceedingly accountable to the performance of their classes, however, they are not often given the creative capacity to make lessons exciting, timely, or applicable.

Teachers are also public servants, meaning that they are subject to political occurrences and often propelled or restrained by political opinions. During the 2013 parliamentary elections this became very clear. But as a part of being a public servant teachers are also bound by the appointments of the Ministry of Education. Teachers are placed where there is need, or where ever it makes political sense. But very often teachers are placed at a schools without consultation and against their wishes, much like Foreign Service officers or military members. In this way, great distances often separate young families. (I once met a man who drove 3 hours to school everyday because his wife was sick at home in Melaka, over 300 km away!)

The last, and most unique difference is that teachers are responsible for traveling form class to class. Again, this scheduling nuance is a carryover from the British collegiate system, even though Secondary schools in the UK now have teachers with their own established classrooms. In Malaysia, students are streamed into classes based on proficiency or academic interest (which of course is based solely on standardized tests) and the teachers for each subject travel to the appropriate classes. Therefore, subjects are not individual to the students; no student has a purely unique schedule. But this, however, does mean that every teacher has a highly individualized schedule. This makes teacher-to-teacher scheduling conflicts devastating. Rescheduling is prevalent and new schedules are extremely hard to make. Other than being exhausting (teachers walk from building to building in 100 degree weather) this also means that students spend a large amount of unmonitored time in their classrooms. The major benefit of this method, however, is that it allows ample planning time for teachers, but this does not make their day less hectic by any means.

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Students painting Mr. Adeeb’s face at English Camp.

Differences are abundant, and these notes only skim the surface, but more than anything else I have learned this year that schools simply try to implement methods in order to drive upward mobility, foster a love for learning and teach accountability. Since the majority of our daily struggle is in navigating our selfish impulses, it’d be wise for us to set up social institutions that just flat-out make it easier for us to be well and do good. Great schools are the best way to do this, and comparing various schools and multiple methods of education might be the best way to improve our educational world.

Decorating our classrooms with English words of inspiration

Decorating our classrooms with English words of inspiration

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Seek Beautiful Things: The Philippines

DSC04688Though I have had many opportunities to travel this year, my latest trip placed me in one of the most beautiful environments. The physical landscape was stunning, and the old towns and ancient villages where perhaps the most charming I have ever seen, but the kindness and relateablility of the people were what made the trip stand apart from most others.

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At the end of September we were given a short holiday. I realized that since I would be overly invested in my school during the last month of my grant (October) this would probably be my last international vacation I would be able to take for the year. I have had many things to do as the school year wraps up and my scheduled in the end looked to be pack with events, family visits, English camps and religious celebrations. So as I looked at the calendar I decided it was worth taking a day off so I could go somewhere new. After a few quick discussions with some friends it was decided that a trip to the Philippines, a destination well know for its beauty and affordability, was a great option. But skipping the more rowdy and frequented tourist spots that are notorious for beaches and boathouses, I was set on going to the interior of the archipelago to see something truly unique: Banaue.

The Philippines were never a place that were firmly on my list of places I wanted to go see in Southeast Asia. I figured it a little bit out of the way on a country-to-country loop and though I like marine life immensely I don’t have a flare for the whole beach scene that makes the Islands so famous. That is until I had a number of conversations with some friends that had made a recent trip to the country. They hit all the major stops and even though they went to three of the top ten beaches in the world they said that their favorite part was hiking through the ancient rice terraces of Banaue; a world heritage site. I then proceeded to to a quick “Google image search” of the area, and I think if you did the same, you would probably decide to go there too. So as it turns out, though it may have been on a bit of a whim, I booked my tolerably priced tickets to Manila just a few weeks before the flights and joined a ETA friend on an adventure onto the main island of the nation.

The Philippine Islands are cheap and pleasantly affordable if you would ever want to go there (one of the countries MANY upsides) but it was immediately evident that it was so affordable largely due to the widespread poverty the plagues the nation. Arriving in Manila was an absolute eye-opener. It was perhaps the strangest airport terminal that I have ever been in with essentially no security and only one person stamping the passports of some 200 passengers from our AirAsia flight. It might have been that we were in the discount terminal that made it seem so strange, but as soon as we got our passports stamped we immediately stepped outside into the hectic streets of Manila: there was no bathroom, ATM, tourist or taxi desk in the terminal. It was the strangest terminal I have been in. But despite the almost shocking start of literately not knowing where we were in the city, we met and extremely friendly stranger (the first of many) that was willing to help us find a place to exchange money for Philippine Pesos, and get us a taxi to a bus station.

The encounter was entirely pleasant and much to my surprise both the man, his friend at the exchange counter, and his friend with the taxi could all speak perfect Americanized English (another pleasant surprise throughout the entire country). We got in the cab and of course, as always, we exchanged some life philosophy with the cab driver (basically a philosopher) and made our way to the bus station. We had heard that Manila was not the place to stay if you wanted to have any fun or valued your health. This became pretty clear as we drove down mangled streets clogged with cars and every other kind of vehicle you could imagine, and passed by blocks upon blocks upon blocks of dropping haphazardly thrown together shops and shanty homes.  Manila was a fast and dirt city, much the way I imagined many Asian cities to be but had not found yet. As it took us nearly an hour to drive just 5 Km to the nearest bus station we were glad with our destination not to spend the night in a questionable hostel in a poverty stricken area and go right for the night bus.

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We really only spent a few hours in the city to be fair, but I have to say that I was a little anxious to get out of the smoky and loud bustle of the city for some more serene surroundings. We paid the cabby a surprisingly little amount and walked around for a short time, getting some things to eat, before we wanted to get on the night bus all the way to Banaue. Buy the bus ticket to the rice terraces was one of the easiest things that we did on the journey, largely in part of the excellent English spoken by cashier who certainly doesn’t sell tickets to foreigners  very often. Though purchasing the ticket was easy, it was then very clear that the travel to the very remote Banaue was going to be really difficult. Not too many people were sure why we were there and why we wanted to go to Banaue (we latter found out we left from the wrong bus station) but they were very clear that it was going to take a long time and that that we would have to get off and change buses in the middle of nowhere at three AM in the morning. Lucky, we made friends in the ticket line, and as luck would have it, he was traveling from Manila back to his home in Banaue–an extreme stroke of fortune. He was quite but kind, and he said he would stick with us through the transfer so that we would reach the small town in 15 hours rather than the previously projected 20 hour journey.

We got some more food from a mango vendor that walked on the bus and then took off for the center of the island. The VAST majority of our time was spent in the extremely heavy Manila traffic, but after a number of hours we were on rough rural roads leading us away from any modern world. After a bumpy ride were little sleep was had we arrived in the darkness with our Filipino friend at  a bus stop that truly was nowhere. It was 3:30 AM and we were supposed to catch a bus passing down that same road to Banaue at that same time.  We had missed the initial bus, and our friend seemed a little bit worried. We knew however, that all we could possibly do was wait for another bus going that way.

We waited in the quiet darkness for well over an hour, watching the people of nighttime food stand talk smoke and drink like it was three in the afternoon. People in this part of the country don’t have any reason to go to bed at night because they don’t have anything to do in the day. The rice season was over and the harvest was just completed. I didn’t quite realize that most people in the area were practicing subsistence living until our waiting in the dark brought me to a conversation with our new friend. He was coming back from Manila because he was getting a Korean visa to lead a Mission trip to Soul in order to teach people English and how to read the Bible (a surprising 98% of the people in the Philippines are Christian). He said he had been there many times, and when I asked  what his job was that allowed him to travel for weeks at a time every year he gave me a confused look, and a short laugh as he said, “I grow rice.” That’s what his father, mother, brothers and sisters all did. No one had an occupation that made money. They just lived off the rice they grew, sold what they could spare and lived largely off the funds of the Churches charities. I have to say, it is always quite surprising to meet people the are just trying to live, and have little concern for anything else outside of what their body physically and spiritually NEEDS everyday.

It was a great conversation in which I was able to connect with someone in a way that I haven’t in quite some time, but our bus finally did arrive. It was with the correct bus that we needed too, thankfully. It was just an hour and a half late. We walked unto the crammed bus of already filled with sleeping people and tried to join the ranks of the unconscious, though it would be just for a couple of until we reached our destination in Banaue.

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When I awoke from a late evening nap I found the sun rising over luscious green hills rippling with the handy-work of the ancient ancestors of the now inhabitants of the region. Rice of course is the staple food of the region, and it has been for about 6,000 years. In order to better grow rice on the less arable land and protect themselves from hostel neighbors the ancient Filipino people built thousands of miles of terraced rice fields that would serve as walls and as sustain them in the rainy but pleasant climate of the Philippine hinterland. The views were spectacular at day break, but what made them even more spectacular though were the sporadic disbursement of more primitive houses that scattered the hillsides, each home accompanied by at least tiny distant workers laboring in the field. The places I have really enjoyed the most this year are those where one gets a snapshot of what life was like 50 or even 100 years ago. The emerging town was exactly what you would imagine; a small, simple country town rested peacefully on the hillside, with the already wide-eyed people already slowly going about the morning’s business.

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When we go off the bus to a quite surprising and much appreciated cool temperature, we were supposed to find our guide that we had previously contacted who would lead us through the rice terraces for the next 3 days. We were about 3 hours earlier than planed,somehow, so we were a bit worried about not connecting to our guide. However it soon became very clear that Banaue was much too small to miss anyone, and immediately everyone knew who we were looking for and just told us to go grab some breakfast and wait for our guide before he lead us to the homestay (all in perfect English of course).

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As we sat waiting for our guide the person that approached us in an overly friendly and high-energy persona was a very pregnant woman in about her late twenties. This was our guide. We thought from her name that she might have been a woman and that was fine, but neither of us expected that she was going to be pregnant. When we got around to asking how far along she was she sadly admitted that she would probably not be able to do the whole hike with us because she was going to probably have her baby that day! Despite having labor pains though she accompanied us on our first leg of the journey before she went to the hospital, and literally gave birth just hours later.

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Irene took us to the top of an overlook before she left and explained in great detail and with great energy the history and significance of the region (she was an exceedingly healthy individual!) The place where we stood was one of the most stunning I have ever been.

Irene walked us through what would happen over the next couple days without her since she would be giving birth to a human being at the time. We would follow her friend Don Don into a jeep and drive about 1 hour to the end of the road so that we could reach the trail head to Batad. Don Don would then lead us on a short down hill, two hour hike through the rice terraces. We would stop, get lunch and drop our things in a family made, traditional 100 year old grass roofed hut where we  would spend the night. Then for the remainder of the day we would make a short trek to a nearby waterfall said to be one of the tallest in the Philippines. Then the next day, we would help prepare breakfast and lunch and then trek out from Batad on a 8 hour walk through the rice terraces most of which are over 4,000 years old and still have seemingly unchanged families living from the bounty of the terraces.

The plan was beautiful, and it went largely as it should have. The walks were charming, or guide, a large and husky man with red stained teeth due to his chewing of the local Beetal-Nut, was kind and affable. The rice terraces were unlike anything I had seen before. Even in the off season where little is still growing they are a radiating green and last as far as you can see the ridge line.  We walked on people’s property with no ill effects and even nearly walked right through some houses and interrupted some family meals. All looks however, were met with perhaps just a bit of confusion, but always a smile. There was no trail anyway, just the natural made path that occurs when people just go about their work everyday cultivating their fields. It was a truly different kind of hike.

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The waterfall was spectacular too. Falling from about 100 feet above us, the water hung in the air and splashed against the surrounding jungle to give all living things a constant supply of water and to give everything a more bright hue of green. The only down side would be that it rained relatively hard (a common theme on many of my treks now) but it provided us with an extraordinary view of the clouds rolling into the old valleys and an comforting feeling as we all slept under a grass roof as it poured outside. We spent that night eating some traditional food and listening to history and folklore of the land while sitting by the fire underneath our raised hut.

The next day unveiled a shinning morning with a blue sky that seemed all the more blue due to the outstanding green blanketed just below it. We rose to the sounds of pounding as the family at the homestay was pounding the daily rice to make our breakfast and lunch. We would be taught to help in a process that was  more complex, time consuming and talent requiring than I had ever thought. It took us a number of hours to produce enough rice to be cooked and eaten by just us 5 in the house. After a short stint of eating, talking about the American occupation before and after WWII (it seemed most Philippine people in Banaue where exceedingly grateful for the American’s presence in the region especially after the Spanish, and later after the Japanese. It made me quite proud to hear of Americans helping the people of Banaue through education as my grandfather was one such navy-man stationed on the Islands during the war) we were than off again on a serene trek along sharp ridges filled with rice and snails and soaking in the vistas of breathtaking rolling hills, each one ribbed as though decorated. It rained on us again at this juncture, but it probably only added to the allure for me, and I enjoyed the hike immensely.

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We made a quick descent down the rough country road at the end of the trail in a vehicle called a jeepeny, essentially an elongated jeep, ate at a local restaurant with our friend Don Don and then were set to take off on the bonus side trip of our short vacation. We would make a detour on the way back to Manila into a city called Vigan (you guessed it, another Wolrd Heritage site) for one night. It required another night bus though.

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Vigan was a strange town, one that you would certainly not expect to find in the Philippines, but what it had in strangeness it matched in allure. Vigan is a 500 year old world heritage site mainly because it was the first of the imperial Spanish settlements in the pacific. The Spanish quickly set up a trading emporium there after first exploration, and it became one of the hubs of international trad for more than  hundred years. As such, it is still marked with a wide variety of colonial remnants including culture, food, dress and architecture, so rare in the region. It was truly a special and beautiful place.

We spent just one day walking the scenic streets where, surprisingly, not another tourist could be seen (none of the western variety anyway).  We stopped in a couple of museums and took, bought some handmade crafts, tried our hand at making some pottery and took a river cruise to learn some more history. But maybe the most enjoyable aspect of the stay were the lovely restaurants that we were constantly eating at. I hadn’t heard kind words about Filipino food, but what I ate in Vigan may have been some of my favorite food of the year. What’s more, was that everything was reasonably priced, and people were so kind that they would never think about arguing with you over prices. That was quite a nice reprieve from the typical haggle war that usually ensues whenever I do anything in Southeast Asia.

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At the end of the day I couldn’t have been more pleased with myself for the successful, quick stop over in Vigan and was actually quite proud to have found a hidden gem among a multitude of touristy stops. But of course time was up fast and I had to head back to Manila because I had to teach a class in the next 48 hours, but it also meant yet another night bus. I loaded up and after another very quick stop over in San Francis I walked along the beach just to check it off the list and then got back on a dreary bus toward the Manila traffic.

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I boarded the plane and was back in the classroom soon after. However, in just a short amount of time I will hold that I was able to cheat the world by sneaking off to see something so beautiful that I felt guilty I was able to do it with such speed. In fact, I was able to see a lot of beautiful things. They can be found every where–some may be easier than others–but nevertheless they can be found. You will be rewarded if you just look for it,  and I have found that truly, all you have to do is seek beauty and, invariably, you will find it.

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“Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful; it is God’s handwriting.”

Assimilation

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I have been here now for more than 8 months (written in early September) and though it may have taken time, I fully feel as though I am assimilated into the community of Maran. I am no longer a blaring enigma walking around town at long last. People no longer stop their cars to stare or ask me where I want to go. They know I am here. I live in Maran. I teach at the schools. I buy groceries and go out to the same restaurants every week.

I have fallen into a predictable routine and not only do I know it now, but so does everybody else. You might think that it is sad that I am no longer turning heads, but even though I am quite popular (certainly not normal) I feel as though this is my ordinary life here now. The school feels like a place where I actually work, the students are actually my students, and my teaching friends are actually my friends. Not only that however, but my home actually feels like my home, and my bed is my bed. I remember the first night I spent here I really had trouble falling asleep as I was too afraid of bugs , gekos or God-knows-what crawling on me as I slept. I said to myself, “Where am I and how did I get here?” about every night. But now, I can lounge and sleep soundly in my room, even do the same in the middle of the jungle with no mosquito net. Creepy-crawlies among many other things simply are just not problems like I thought they were. Often times I can even forget I am in a foreign place. That is, until I do something considered strange.

For instance, just last week I was sitting in the Bilik Guru (or the teacher’s lounge)doing some work when  a staff administrator came in the room looking shocked. He wanted my help. Unsure of what was wrong I of course said that I would help him. But then he told me that I was the only one that would probably help because I was a for a Orang Putih (white person). I then gathered that wanted me to help him catch an animal in the school store, so I followed him down to the Koperasi where we peered in and discovered a snake of at least 5 feet in length. I pointed at me and then the snake in one fluent motion as if to say, “Go get it!”. Little did he know that I had been waiting for this moment for my whole life! I couldn’t tell you how many times I had seen Steve Irwin catch snakes on Animal Planet and I was of course confident that with that education I could wrangle anything that crawled my way.

By looking at the snake I knew that it was not venomous but no one else did. I tried to convey that there was limited danger but know it was hard to get across. We had very different wrangling strategies, as the other teachers wanted to simply kill the snake, and I wanted to catch it a let it go into the jungle. This immediately became clear when without warning one of my teachers rushed the room with a large stick above his head and began hammering it to the ground like he was trying to split wood. He was going to chop that snake in half. But he missed every time. The snake made a hasty escape out the door and around the back of the girl’s hostel into a giant pile of palm leaves. It was clear that he could not stay there; the female students would not have it. So as we stood wondering how to get the snake out, a random man off the road came up and without a word set the whole pile of brush on fire. Ingenious, I guess. We waited for the snake to inevitably shoot out, which it did. And when it did, it slipped across the ground straight to me. I used my stick and brought it down fast across the back of its neck. It was pinned. Then, I simply grasped the top of its head with my forefingers and slipped my thumb under its jaw just as I had seen Steve, Jeff and Manny (Animal Planet heroes/crazies) do some many times. People thought it was the weirdest thing they had ever seen. They wanted me to throw the snake in the fire, but I explained that since it hurt no one, I would not hurt it in any way. Again, I was the most insane person of the day.

But after a quick walk into the jungle just behind our school I would let the snake go—not without being followed by nearly every boy age 6 to 17 though. That day I went from moderate celebrity super athlete to borderline superhero, merciful and impervious to venom. No one understood that the snake was essentially a large Gardner snake—totally harmless.

I achieve yet another life long dream just the week earlier: I caught a 3 foot Monitor Lizard in another disgruntled ETA’s home. Upon a quick visit to a local ETA’s house they informed me that there was actually a large lizard in the corner one of their rooms. Again, I channeled my inner Steve (something that’s never been too far away from me) and pinned the pseudo-dinosaur to the ground with a blanket. People of the American varity thought I was stupid and lucky. I guess you can’t be a hero to everybody.

Other than fighting foolish animals in the forest I have done a few other things in at school lately. My lessons are going well and I am really doing a lot of teaching. My lessons are varying now, with students in every form in a different exam schedual I am running around trying to meet their needs and catering to preparing them for their exam formats. (As a side note, I will say that the prevalence of exams in this country and the schedules that they dictate for children and teachers are something that I have more than a few opinions on, but seeing that I have sworn to not mention names or say anything political in this blog I’ll refrain. Maybe another time. ) I am busy and feeling quite like I would if I was in my first year teaching in the US at this point. The demands on my time and afterschool activity schedule are high, but that just might be what it takes to bring me to a sense of normalcy to it all.

In brief details, I am currently working through units on the future, along with the future tense, but trying to make it more big picture as well. I am of course still trying to weave in larger thematic concepts that require students to question, incite creativity and implore critical thinking of value systems. But along with those macro topics of life (more or less) I am working on real heroes, stereotypes, idioms, poetry, songs, along with things like Bucket-Lists and future goals that make students think about what they value and how best to achieve what they seek ; all while being a pretty goofy character in the class. Students have, and probably always will, laugh at me while I’m in the class, but I try to use that to my advantage to teach some more weighty things without them really knowing it. That begin said, teaching is now teaching. The same as it would be anywhere else in the world, and I am enjoying it even though it is not as much a novelty as it used to be.

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Apart from the at school time, I have a number of extra-curricular activities that are going really strong now. I spend a large percentage of the time after school just talking to students that live in the hostel. Though I have been doing extra-classes/tutoring 3 days a week for students preparing for exams, I also have done some writing workshops just for fun and to entice some creativity (which is still lacking quite a bit). But on an even more fun level I have been playing a lot of music and maybe even more football.

SIDE NOTE: And yes, we still tutor the terrible twosome. They still are terrible.

Michael’s Movie n’ Music Monday was the brainchild of a long time past, but it finally came to fruition about mid-August. It started with me sharing the plethora of Disney movies that I have. And then I realized that the students loved the music in the movies almost as much as I did (If I were to have a ranking system, Disney music might be at the top for favorite music genera. Whoops.) I also realized that the music was a great way to understand the stories and an even better way to understand English. So I started just pausing the movies at during my favorite songs, passing out lyrics sheets and going though the songs with the music. It was a blast! The students love singing and never really get the chance to do that (more on this latter.) But what started with movies eventually just turned into me bringing my guitar to the computer room and teaching them songs. I eventually exhausted my library of movies as well. But this has been successful and one of the most fun things that I have done all year. Students practice English, learn about things like dynamics, tone and rhythm, and get to do something entirely new to them: choral singing.

I have also have been playing football nearly every day with my male hostel students now and it has been a great way to connect with them since they are a little more reluctant to sing and a little bit less excitable about learning in the classroom setting. We always have a good time, and they feel free to ask me questions about all sorts of thing that they would never ask in class: Where’s your wife?  Are girls good or bad for you? Why don’t you have children? What is Halloween? Have you ever drunk alcohol before? But really, sir, where is your wife? Have you ever been dancing? Are you sad you don’t have a wife? Is Santa Clause real? –all very pertinent questions in the eyes of 15-year-old Malay boys. Such questions make me realize how little I know about life, but maybe more surprisingly, that I too really have no idea how to explain Halloween.

But I have done a couple things thus far that have equally engaged all of my students. My biggest project of the year has now come to pass. It was my idea early in the year to have a larger community project with local schools to help unity and build the understanding for the importance of English. I wanted a community project that would involve students at not just my schools but others as well. So with the help of a few other ETAs we devised a SUPER camp in which we had 6 schools join from around the State of Pahang to enjoy an overnight camping experience in Maran, all while being immersed in English songs and games. The camp was Medieval themed and I have to say that the creation of the plan for the overall camp was one of my prouder moments.

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It wasn’t easy, but we acquired funds from our schools, MACEE, our district and state boards of education, and even an equivalent of the PTA so that we could host a large camp of over 150 students from around the State—ages 13 to 16. The buses, food and tents were difficult things to acquire, but many chipped in though they were confused at first by the idea of an overnight Medieval English Camp. The camp came together on the first weekend of September and it was a great success. We had songs and skits, Medieval nursery rhymes, and a whole lot of laughing that the expense of me and the 12 other ETAs that showed up to help. There was only one catch to the camp: deluge.

Constant rain for more than 16 hours.

Constant rain for more than 16 hours.

It has never rained in the morning in Maran. It has never rained through the night. It has never rained for more than 5 or 6 hours. Most storms come during the late afternoon and last for a couple hours, dump a ton of rain and then dissipate, creating a much cooler temperature. On this day however, the only day of the year that this has happened, it rained for 18 straight hours—hard. The camp began at 5:00 PM on Friday and ended at 5:00 PM on the next day Saturday. What occurred between those hours was nearly Biblical. An unbelievable amount of water fell from the sky from exactly 5:07 PM on Friday until 3:20 PM on Saturday. It was like some cosmic joke. It sidelined nearly all of my planed activities for the camp and made us retreat to the small pavilions for safety and some good old elongated plan B activities.  During the night I had a number of students emerge from their tents (most had never camped before) and told me they were having SO much fun but that they had no chance of sleeping because of the amount of water in their tent. One group of boys told me that they really like camping because it was like swimming in your sleep. Sleeping in the water was not so fun for me, but it in no way brought down the attitudes of the students. It was amazing and I was so thankful that they were able to endure something like that. I know that in the States, students reactions to the constant downpour (and I mean DOWNPOUR) would have been less then enthusiastic.

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In the end I could not have been more proud of my students and more surprised by the resolve of all those you traveled to us for the camp. Students went away happy and I learned some very important lessons: If you plan a parade in Malaysia, Malaysia WILL rain on your parade.

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All things being said and done this early fall. I have had a marvelous time in Maran as I really feel natural in the life I am leading right now. Students are seemingly more excited or perhaps just more confident when they see me. They ask more than just the basic elevator questions. Now I get enthusiastic hello’s with maybe even some inside jokes intertwined. And it’s that kind of communication that makes the atmosphere at both the school and the greater community really change for me, and it’s that kind of worked up practice and results that makes me excited about teaching back home.

Until the next trip (the Philippines),

Michael

These are my people.

These are my people.

Views from Borneo

Rivers; not Roads (Part II)

If you are still reading this, than that means you are a much better friend or relative than I am to you.

Crocodile of Borneo.

Crocodile of Borneo.

After short flight to KL and a brief layover in the city, I almost immediately boarded my forth plane of the week to reach the international city of Kota Kininbalu in Sabah, Malaysia. Borneo and the Malaysian states within it are much further away than I originally thought and while in flight to reach the second largest island in the world it took nearly four hours—not much shorter than it took for me to get to Nepal. On arriving in the city I was planning on meeting another ETA that was previously traveling around Bali, Indonesia and then doing some serious trekking and nature-seeing for the about 10 days. I was able to find him immediately as he was extremely tall and white compared to everyone else on the island, which eased some worries right off the bat, and the next day we set out for some rare high mountain hiking in tropics. As I had said before, I had been drawn to Borneo and its natural environment for a very, very long time. I had gone once before during the last week of June but it was just enough to entice me to return and spend some real time there before I left this region of the world. Borneo was after all a major pushing factor in making me decide to apply for Fulbright Malaysia. Its weather, topographical inimitability and vast diversity of plant life make it the most bio-diverse place on the planet. Beauty can be found here in forms unlike any other place in the world. I had to go back. Immediately, I was glad that I did return. The city of Kota Kininbalu (or KK) is in the running for my favorite in Malaysia. It’s a modern and relatively clean city that was entirely rebuilt after the Japanese destroyed the vast majority in the 1940’s. It had some of the best western food specialty restaurants that I have had since being in Southeast Asia (very welcome) and easily the most spectacular fish markets I have ever seen—filled with every type and color of tropical fish you could imagine. The tables in the market were whirled in colors only found in the tropical sea. DSC04231 The real reason that we had traveled to this city though was to see and hike the highest peak in South East Asia—Mount Kininbalu. Kininbalu is a monstrous peak that reaches over 4,000 meters, not quite what I was climbing in Nepal, but the world’s tallest equatorial peak. This of course meant that within the shadow of the mountain there was an atmosphere and ecosystem that was extremely diverse and dynamic, which allowed it to be a World Heritage site. DSC04238 The ride out to the Mountain was not far, but took about 2 hours (mountain roads have that effect on transportation I suppose). As soon as we got there we knew that we would not be able to summit the mountain. Some previous research had told us that even though it could be summited in a day we would have had to hike for about 16 hours, pay a major fee to enter the peak area and pay an unnecessary guide about 1,000 RM to take us up. We opted to due a major day trek just about three quarters of the way up the mountain. The terrain was beautiful as it was lush. It rained lightly on us but that could not have dampened our spirits any. We talked about our home towns as we made our way up and down the rolling trail, stopping only to traverse rivers or look at curious plant or marvel at the din of birds. It was an uninhabited trail, where we heard or saw nothing of people and were subject only to the natural relm that the forest had developed over the millennia. Seemingly, land lost in time.

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                We walked our way back to the park headquarters, and far more tired than we figured, we then realized that we now had the task of getting back to the city, or fear spending the night on the mountain. This brought me to do something I had never done before: hitchhike. There was a number of vans and buses that ran out to the park, but after five o’clock there were none heading back to the city; a problem we didn’t foresee. We were confident we would be able to find a ride back however, if, that is, we were willing deal out some money. We sat on the curb near the park’s gate for only about an hour as we tried to flag down suitable transport to town. First a bus, then a number of fully loaded vans, than again a number of flatbed trucks weighted down with roughly 12 children each: none stopped, though we did receive some excitingly vigorous waves in return. Finally, and old rusted out van with a very gentle drive rolled up and stopped next to us. A Rosary hung from the review mirror and the man looked to be nearly sixty years old. We paid him a modest amount and we followed the setting of the sun back to our beds; nothing was going to be a horror story that day. DSC04331The next morning we made our way to the airport. It was my intention for the trip to go as deep, and travel as far into the unmanned areas of the world as I could. Our destination was Mulu. At the heart of the Bornean island and sunken heavy, far away from the eyes of the world and the hand of man was  a small enclave of human life that inhabited a place in which Headhunters tails are heralded and rivers replace roads. It was a place that until very recently could not be found on a map and until the mid-century was not treaded without terror of running across more ancient men that did not think kindly of new faces. Passing over such a place would reveal boundless miles of steaming jungle and immeasurable lengths of wriggling rivers stained dark with soil being carried from the earth’s bosom. Jurassic hills shrouded in mist. Yawning mouths opening to unfathomable caves; depths that lead to places beyond strange. This was our destination. This was where we wanted to go. We arrived in the town of Miri, a smaller coastal town but quickly developing. It was the idea to arrive in Miri and take a 13 hour boat ride up the river to the interior of Mulu. This was really the only way to reach the area until 2009. No roads can reach there, but a small airport has been built to fly curious travelers to a place not often seen. We wanted the water road however. Though it would have been difficult it would have been an experience worth the trip. DSC04461 Early the next morning we were told that we could head to the river delta and hire a boatman to take us up through a series of small villages where we would get on another longboat that would take us up the narrow river to what is now Mulu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  An early morning cab ride to the Jetty ended in disappointment. We were told that the water on the river was uncommonly low for this time of year and it was unclear whether we would be able to successfully hire a boatman to take us up the narrowest part of the river. We decided to ask around any way. But after a short ride up the river to the village where we were looking to find a boat-for-hire it became clear that on this day of the week, it was Monday, and under these water conditions we would not be able to float our way to the heart of the island; we would have to fly. DSC04448Just hours later we were on a plane. A frantic, but understandable course of events had taken place as our romantic visions of floating up the river into the heart of darkness dissipated, and we had to become more practical, and even more frivolous, to reach our destination. A quick call and a few hundred Ringgett landed us on a plane that morning as we joined a few fat-cats with they’re new untested gear and shimmering smart-phones. Not as romantic as I had hoped. The flight in was spectacular though, don’t get me wrong—full of every hue of green God could conceive along with about 20% of all the biodiversity on earth and immense rivers could be seen from my tiny window—not roads though. Even upon just exiting the plane the site was overwhelming; one felt as they were in a hole surrounded some many unknown and unseen things that it made any person seem small. If you want to feel insignificant, go for a walk in the jungle.

Deer Cave

Deer Cave

                We wanted to walk immediately, so we did. We walked to our homestay where we would park our bodies for a few hours, but first we booked a guide immediately to go see the most famous and infamous parts of the park: Gunung Mulu, Deer Cave. A yawning, toothed gapping mouth, Deer Cave is in fact the largest cavern in the world. It’s massively cavernous mouth is 174 meters wide, 123 meters high and stays roughly those dimensions for 4.6 Kilometers. If you wanted to build two replica Statue of Liberty’s on top of each other, you would still have ample space to fly a Boeing 747 onto its tongue and STILL have ample space for another to land right beside it.  It is a strange place, lonely on the planet earth with no other comparable brothers or sisters, but it is not lonely in other friends. Deer cave is home to over 4 million bats and countless other creatures that feed off of the ceaseless supply of guano in the depths of the cave; even a river runs through it.DSC04304

We entered the cave with a guide, one of the senior masters of the cave that led the film crew of  the TV series “Planet Earth” in 2004. I had seen the episode on Mulu and must admit that it was one of the driving factors in my coming to Malaysia. We peeled our way through the jungle to take in the enormous portal to the earth’s bowels. Just approaching the immense mouth it seemed to breath, and like all breath, its breeze was distinct with a sharp odor (a smell I won’t forget!), but contrary to most breath, its passing air was much colder then the standing air around us. It made for an unworldly entry.

Little known fact, a giant Abe Lincoln lives in Deer Cave.

Little known fact, a giant Abe Lincoln lives in Deer Cave.

In fact, walking in the cave seemed down-right lunar. What would it be like to walk on another planet? I would assume it would feel as strange to the physical senses as walking into Deer Cave. Nothing looked like it belonged on earth, nor did anything sound our smell like things of the earth. Vision was distorted being in such a large underground place. And the sound? The sound went everywhere, and seemingly, nowhere. You were deafened by the din of millions upon (literally upon) millions of bats. You want to immediately leave, or immediately venture deeper at every moment—mind and body are equally confused. And then you see it: The mountainous body of guano. At this site your mind and body begin to work in concert again. So perfectly horrible is Deer Cave’s “Mount Guano” that suddenly everything in your being says, “You should probably leave and never come back”. Not only is it an ancient pile of poop literally dozens of meters high, but it is a pile of poop inhabited by and being eaten by the most diabolical things on earth. A swift swipe of our guide’s staff to the mound uncovered an untellable number of squirming worms, cockroaches, millipedes, centipedes and everything else I would NEVER want to see again. It is what nightmares are made of. But after exploring some of the depths and discussing with our guide the history of the cave it was time to make our exit and in turn watch exit of another strange mass.

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Mass exodus.

Mass exodus.

Every night as dusk fell and the sky begins its passage into the nocturnal heavens all the inhabitants, some 4 million bats, make a mass exodus from the cave. In order to meet their daily feeding needs they must leave the safe refuge of the cave and venture into the jungle to fest upon the insects of the forest. Doing so every night is dangerous though, as there are many awaiting them outside the cave for their dinner as well. We waited just outside, cameras at the ready, but so did squadrons of night hawks, owls and other birds of prey. In order to counter this, the entire contents of the cave, some 4 million bats, would exit in the span of just 1 hour. Working together it was easy to see why fish form schools, beasts of the field form herds, and birds flock. Together, each group of about 10,000 bats would form a mass the resembled one flying creature. A massive twisting globule that wriggled like a snake as they escaped the cave AND the clutches of any would-be predators that I saw. It was yet another example of communal survival. The night was beautiful, and so was the night’s sleep at the home-stay, even though I spent most of it sleeping with a bunch of cats on my bed.

Clearwater cave

Clearwater cave

The following morning was our morning to really go into the park and get away from all other people and see what wild things lay beyond the water’s edge. After a long morning of running around and finagling for prices, team-members and supplies we hired a boatman to take us up the river and serve as our guide on a three day hike they called the Panicles trek. We happened across an Australian couple that morning who were signed up for a lone trip up the river to complete the three day journey. We didn’t have enough money to shell-out for our own guide and boat for the trip, but if we were able to split it with some other people we would have a much more manageable time. The result was a haphazard group of two Aussies, one Polish Doctor, two Fulbright ETAs and our local Iban guide with his son. At 8:00 AM we all got in a boat and headed down the river on the first leg of the Panicles adventure.

It was clear immediately that we were exiting any form of civilization for a while. We past a couple of Iban settlements on our way; people bathing and fishing in the river, living life very much the same as they always had. The boat ride was every bit as serene, every bit as beautiful and every bit as romantic as I had hoped. Caught in canons of lime stone and sheer walls of foliage the river was a natural highway for all living things including us. As I mention before however, the water was low and every 20 minutes or so we would have to unload the boat and push it atop the gravel stones in order to continue our way. The way to the trail head was special to me but not particularly easy. Nevertheless, we made our way, helped by the strong backs of our guides and some absurd and quite obscene jokes by the good Polish Doctor.

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Before the brunt of the day’s hike began we were led to some different Caves in the area. Most notably, we visited ClearWater and Wind Cave. The former is the second largest cave system in the world with over 150 Km of tunnels, and the latter held some of the most dazzling cave formations that I have ever seen including halactites, oozing crystalline bubbles of age-old rock and salt deposits and fabulously preserved pillars of earth that seemingly held up the floor of the world. Beauty under the earths surface is almost too peculiar to behold, and it’s not quite the same as a mountain or flower above the earth’s crust, but subterranean beauty is a work all its own and is just as spectacular.

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After taking in the caves it was time for our hike, and I have to say despite the rain that fell on us, it was one of the most enjoyable hikes I’ve ever taken. We separated so it was just the two of us walking. We didn’t stop to talk all that much except when we heard an interesting bird, a frog or a monkey. We were surrounded by life the entirety of our day long hike but saw relatively little of the wild life. We could hear things always, and we knew without doubt that the many eyes of the forest were watching us, but so attuned to their surrounding were they, and so unattuned were we that we hardly ever saw things even move. It was just a simple reminder how far from the forest men have wondered. What we did see plenty of were insects—Insects of every kind shape and color. Never were we bothered by them surprisingly, things like mosquitoes, leaches and spiders were present but never harassing us. I surprisingly think I can say that I made it through an entire trip to Borneo without a single leach, spider, or mosquito bite—something that would contradict preconceived notions for sure.

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We passed under flowers and fruits and howling birds for hours until we finally reached our resting point for the night. It was a simple place called camp 5 and it consisted of long house, each room having about 10 barracks style bunks. It reminded me of an old military camp one would see in a movie, but around it was a beautiful babbling river—fresh and clear with many fish—and a magnificent rock face the contrasted a strange yellowish color against the emerald green swallowing it from the edges.  If I had not stayed in some really spectacular campsites before in the previous year, I would have to say that it would be my favorite site that I have ever slept at.

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“It was a paradise” I said to myself as I cooled off in the quiet stream. We had the place almost entirely to ourselves until the unthinkable happened: We were joined that night in our bunks by a group of ornithology students studying the rare birds of Borneo. They were led by a world renowned ornithologist that had practically written the book on the birds. From what University did the students come from? None other than THE Michigan State University! I was overwhelmed by the probability of it, and perhaps even a little sickened by fact that I was not as unique as a I thought I was. There was even a student from Grand Rapids among the group and to my own bewilderment a student from East Grand Rapids as well. I almost threw up. Shocked. Here I was, in a place that was literally off the grid (rescue missions to Mulu often don’t even use GPS because the coordinates aren’t detailed enough to help anyone)and in an attempt to get as far away from everything I had grown up knowing, I was now talking about high school teachers I had with someone that had grown up just 4 minutes from my house.  It was almost unfair.

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After the most unexpected walk down memory lane I will ever have, we all fell asleep open to the stars and the night air. The next morning it was time for our Pinnacles assent. In Nepal I had done some steep climbs but nothing as intense as the one day trek to the eerie pinnacle forest preached high above the rest of the park. It would be a full day of walking but almost 70 percent of the day’s time would be spend climbing straight up the side of a mountain to overcome the pass to view the pinnacles from above. We would be climbing up almost 2,000 meters in just 6 hours. We were ready for it as we are both young and in good physical shape, but the task was difficult. The first couple of hours were mainly foot climbing, nothing too technical. But the rest of the trek, the final 1/3 day, was far more technical and had designed climbs over sharp limestone using a series of ropes and ladders. The first part was long and pretty exhausting, but the final 800 meters or so were nerve racking and equally trying, but that was totally forgotten as the climb became exponentially more fun with the added toys to climb with. With the passage of some time, a few disgruntled off-hand comments and curses from the Good Doctor, and A LOT of sweat we traversed the rocks and emerged our eyes onto an interesting outcrop of limestone rocks that had been eaten away over the past millennia by the almost daily rain. An amazing site, one that not even my ornithologist friends could see. I was as far away from home in every way, and from that point one might turn and see two countries, Malaysia and Brunei, but from there there are no boundaries as you or I would understand boundaries, if you were to look all you would see would be a ceaseless sea of green, a rippling ocean of living things.

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The decent was slow, but just as fun and actually just as exhausting too. At the bottom of the climb it was time to wash off what sweat and blood was put into the day and take a bath in the river. Followed by a meal of Maggie Noodles and peanuts, the evening was that of perfect contentment—the feeling of accomplishment is perhaps the entry to sublime relaxation. I watched the sunset play against the rocks and the sparkling stream as I prepared for the trip back the next day. I slept well that night.

He following day was not sad, but nearly triumphant. I had truly done something that I had wanted to do for many years and completed a major checkmark on my list of things to do in Malaysia. The day would consist of a long hike back yet again, and a labored boat ride to the park headquarters where we had begun. Again, we listened to the songs of birds and the call of monkeys as we wove through those green trails named for the Headhunters of years gone by. We took it all in as best we could, but no matter how long you spend in natural sublimity, you could never take it all in—the more you understand the details of life the more overwhelmed you become.

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We finished our trip to Mulu, and said our silent goodbyes to a place that we knew we would probably not return. We had learned so much from that expanse of land: much about beauty, natural history, even our place on this planet—meaning that, the fact that we have a place on this planet at all is remarkable enough for me.  In places like Malaysia, or for the greater sense, Southeast Asia, it can be hard to forget life’s profusion. But just like most things, I suppose you might get lulled to sleep by the commonplace things you see every day, or witness just often enough so that you are no longer astonished by them.

Earth is a haven of the highest improbability. I reject the notion that our earth, or nature in general, is hostile towards life, or unfriendly towards humans. The counter argument can literally be found everywhere. There is hardly a square mile of land or water that is not inhabited by something organic, and this could certainly not be said of 99.9 percent of the space in the universe. Nearly every inch, every centimeter of our planet provides something to the micro and macro creatures which inhabit it, it pours forth sustenance like a tap you could never shut off and consequently, I have just noticed that we benefit from it.

Trying to sum up a trip like this one is impossible. As I flew from Mulu I realized it was my 8th flight in a span of 15 days! It was a journey of the mind as much as it was the body though, and I am still trying to grapple with what I took away from those travels and what I will continue to learn from those experiences in the years to come. The blessings have been undeserved. That I have been given the ability to witness the supreme love, love poured forth to sustain us, but not us alone, for through the sustenance of some things comes the sustenance of all things. The realization is enough to root me deep in the soil of faith, faith through the sight of such a system, one which day after day, year after year pours forth life, gives it the ability to develop, and night after night reveals knowledge of it all to those who seek it. I am, we are, far more than fortunate, far beyond the recipients of the probable for the things we have we have done nothing to receive. Life, community, mutualism, happiness, human love; they simply shouldn’t be possible. But, we are the products of the impossible. We are blessed.

Looking into the virgin expanse, Headhunters Trail.

Looking into the virgin expanse, Headhunters Trail.

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. (Psalm 19:1)

Rivers; not Roads

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Preface: My computer has broken. If you thought I was dead you were wrong. If you thought I was finally done with this blog and a quitter like everyone else that has ever started a blog, you are also wrong. In fact, this will be such a long post that most of you will not read it. For that reason I have broken it up into two posts so that you don’t have to store up on a weeks worth of food and water to make your way through. Good luck. 

There are times when it is near impossible to not be staggered by the abundance of living things in this world.

Would you know that there are over 1,000 species of fig trees; hundreds in Malaysia alone? The fig is an extraordinary specimen of life and the world’s unceasingly outrageous propensity to provide provision and sustain it in its most compellingly beautiful form. It is an example of a most baffling symbiotic relationship.  

Most tropical figs fascinatingly don’t grow from the ground up. Conversely, pollinated fig seeds cannot begin their life in soil, but rather grow on other plants, namely, other large and decaying trees. Only the fortunate fig that falls on a large semi-flat surface on a nearby tree will likely ever start its strange journey. But, contrary to some beliefs figs are not parasitic, they draw their sustenance from photosynthesis like all plants and only utilize the unused water and nutrients left on the outside of trees in order to start growing down. A growing fig will then cast its roots down, like a fisherman casting a net around a stump, in order to catch stable ground and more nutrients to grow. This way the fig saves precious time in the jungle’s never ending game to catch invaluable sunlight hidden in the dense canopy by having a head-start—it is already halfway up a tree. From there the fig tree grows. And as it grows, it begins to overtake its surrogate, climbing over it and eventually overtaking the tree, leaving its sprawled roots out in the ground as the older tree decays to nothing. Thus, this leaves a forest full of fig trees looking like they have sprouted legs ready to roam around the jungle at a moment’s notice. But much greater and much stranger things happen.

My travel partner Pat standing next to a massive fig tree. Pat is 6'6.

My travel partner Pat standing next to a massive fig tree. Pat is 6’6.

As the fig tree grows and begins to fruit, its saga plays out one of the stranger relationships in the natural world. Fig trees of course produce figs, but figs are not actually fruit, they are rather a “falsefruit”—meaning they are actually a series of thousands of tiny flowers mixed with seeds. And like all flowers, there are male and female figs, and every tree tends to produce one or the other, all for the purpose of pollination and reproduction. It pollinates and reproduces using fig wasps, and not just any fig wasp, but just one species that coincides with that particular fig tree. Half of all fig trees are female Caprifigs, or inedible figs, and the other half have predominantly male flower parts. All fig wasps are born in figs. A wasp enters the caprifig to lay eggs because the stem is too long to enter on the edible figs, but of course the wasps pollinate the figs of both as they look for a place to lay eggs. After the female wasp lays eggs in the fig it dies. Males always hatch first. They walk around the inside of the fig pollinating the micro flowers and fertilize the unhatched females. Before the females hatch the males eat an exit out of the fig, tear away the egg casings so the females can hatch, and they even eat the stem of the fig for seemingly no reason so that it can fall. They then die. The entire life of the male fig wasp is spent inside the fig, they never meet the female wasps; they don’t even have wings! But they do however, ensure the fig itself and the wasps reproduce. Females then leave, and have 48 hours to find another caprifig to lay their own eggs and pollinate another future colossal fig tree to ornament the jungle.

Even if you knew nothing of this story, it would still be beautiful, even if you never saw a fig wasp, which you haven’t; it would still be just as wondrous. Why would living things, mere atoms, go to such great lengths to perpetuate themselves? An imponderable question. This relationship is technically called “mutualism” and it refers to the mutual benefits that both partners in the relationship gain. It is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and wondrous dramas of our giving world—but it is not rare.  

Humankind too can share this kind of relationship. I like to think that I get a healthy dose of astonishment in most of my weekly undertakings, as my last (or every) blog entry might suggest. But my most recent adventure was one that tested, and one that didn’t fail to breathe life into the wonder of the world. It was divided into two parts.

The first leg of my trip was based in Thailand, and the first focus of the trip was its people. I had never really had much of an interest in going to Thailand before my year began here. What I knew about Thailand was either ancient Siamese history (probably predominantly gathered from the King and I) or things that I rather would not like to know about any place (it is the capitol sex and human trafficking across the world). These two things would probably do far more to turn me away from such a place rather than turn me towards it. However, I have gotten to know quite a few people that speak very highly of Thailand, not just of its cheap prices and good food, but for its people. 

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                I spent a grand total of 6 days in Thailand, and almost all of it was spent in rural, often forgotten, often unreached areas of the country. I flew directly into Bangkok after Malaysia’s Hari Raya (post Ramadan celebration) and spent a short amount of time there—just one night. The focus of the trip was not to inundate myself with city life, as it can be quite similar everywhere now, but I had to see some of the major sites and I had to give it some respect—it is the largest city in Southeast Asia at 9 million people, and the wealthiest. All in all, I had to say that I liked the city.  

What Pho

What Pho

I didn’t do a lot of touristy things while in Bangkok. I stayed with a friend of a friend in a far too nice house in a far nicer than I expected part of the city. Also, I had a friend with me that had studied abroad there for nearly a year and knew the ins and outs of the entire town. I was very fortunate to skip around to the less traveled but perhaps more spectacular parts of the city; winding down narrow alley ways called soys, and perusing the more local, authentic cuisine. I actually found the city to seem quite developed, relatively clean, and culturally diverse and considerably less hustle-and-bustle than I expected. It was in no way like hot and fast cities of Ho Chi Mihn City or Phnom Phen . Of course, I did stay away from some of the more seedy areas. Regardless, I found exploring Watt Pho, one of the largest Buddhist Temples in the world, along with the stunningly constructed and decorated Watt Arun to be some of the most beautiful temples I have ever seen. Walking through the gate of the Grand Palace was yet again another jaw-dropping moment, riddled with fine artisan work, stuccoed walls, ancient murals and glittering glass and gold made it so one could hardly look in one place for too long in fear of going blind or perhaps missing a turn around the corner that could bring something more ostentatious. 

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After a full day of city living, a good nights rest and a much maligned time in traffic, it was time to head to our next location. At this point I left a number of my friends to travel with another ETA. Neither of us knew exactly where we were going, but my travel buddy could speak some Thai so in the end, I couldn’t be that worried about anything. But the journey to the off-the-beaten-track town of Pla Pak started a little worrisome. Pla Pak is a very small town in the Isaan region of Thailand—just about 7 hours northeast of Bangkok situated on the Mekong river and the boarder to Laos. When we arrived at the bus station the minimal amount of Thai that we knew was looking to be a little bit wanting as we had trouble finding the correct bus and once we did, we had a number of people try to tell us that we were on the wrong bus or that we did not actually want to go to Pla Pak. But we did. We boarded the bus and set out over night for the small and secluded town where we had set up a couple of days to stay with a family in their home and try to learn a little bit about food, family and daily life.

Monks keep time while they perform prayers.

Monks keep time while they perform prayers.

The ride took us through the night, and in the morning we had a bit of a panic-stricken awakening not knowing when exactly to get off—we were not riding the bus to the end of the line. However, with some help of other on the bus who spoke no English, but tried their hardest, we exited the bus and walked onto the side of the road immediately surrounded by buffalo and luscious green fields of knee-high rice. The air was drier than I was accustomed, but from the earth radiated such a radiantly healthy green glow thus signifying to me that this was the season of easy-living in Thailand: constant cumulonimbus clouds rolled across the sky and were ready at any moment to drop their precious cargo of rain; it was after all rainy season.

Wi teaches us how to cook Som Tom, a spicy dish made from primarily cucumber and peppers. Wi eats Som Tom 3 times a day, everyday.

Wi teaches us how to cook Som Tom, a spicy dish made from primarily cucumber and peppers. Wi eats Som Tom 3 times a day, everyday.

We followed a man into the back of a pick-up truck which we hoped was heading into our small town destination; we road among a number of curious occupants, some of which included students, farmers, chickens and a rather large basket of frogs. A not so long ride later we hopped off at the small town center of Pla Pak. There, immediately across the street was the woman we had been in contact with: Wi. Wi was a homestay keeper. She allowed people to come stay with her and her family in order to receive some extra monetary compensation and learn English, from what I understood however, business was slow in this remote region, not too many western tourist were interested in making it out this far. I however, was keen on learning something about a new culture and way of life about which I knew relatively nothing. I was eager and excited to stay with and experience real culture, not simply a manufactured sense of enlightenment one receives by staying in a well-kept tourist area.

That is exactly what we received while staying with Wi. The both of us again jumped in the back of a pickup truck (a Chevy Silverado!) and road off to their family farm. Wi was quiet, warm, knowledgeable, and a little bit eccentric which made her pretty entertaining to be around. She largely managed the farm by herself, but displayed a business savvy and executive skills that where quite extraordinarily impressive, that is to say, that see worked hard to synchronize the efforts of those around her in order to reap the benefits for as many as possible.

Wi took us in and let us experience what life was like for so many in Southeast Asia, she also runs a farm. On her farm, this single woman requires the help from many, but also provides for many. The farm hands and herders of her farm are families—men and women—that do not get paid in cash, but in food, a safe haven to stay and in the much needed company of companionship that is actually needed in this remote part of the world. In addition, Wi takes in orphans, children that at least try to regularly attend school but hard times have required their parents to have them go elsewhere. These few young children are provided with food, shelter and cloths by Wi and the little money that she makes as a homestay hostess. The children in return help her with cooking, cleaning and maintaining the farm.

From the very first hour of staying there it was clear that this hive-like system or relationships was far from being about business or money, and had infinitely more to do with survival, deep understanding, empathy and perhaps most importantly happiness. Happiness can be hard-pressed, even scarce in some places and can attenuate during particular times, but I have found that people largely do what they can in order to provide nourishment for the happiness of themselves, and consequently, for others. Perhaps, this is mutualism at its finest. Perhaps it can be argued that human happiness doesn’t truly exist unless it is shared. And perhaps, this element is the most awe-inspiring condition of the Divine order, and its never-ending propensity to supply that which is needed. I am tremendously grateful to have been able to witness that snapshot of the human drama play out.

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Outside of the farm the world was hard and poor, maybe even somber, but there was a reverence among people, a quite respect and warm reception if your eyes ever met another’s. We spent days learning how to cook, buying produce at the market, visiting the nearby Buddhist Temple, playing with the children of the town, and riding bikes and trucks through the ceaseless fields of green. We were even fortunate to follow the monks—normally secluded for pious reasons—on their morning walk as they rose with the sun to receive food from the villagers for the needs of the day. And at the conclusion of our time at the homestay, we were awarded a wonderful feast of traditional foods and ceremony that would bring us fortune for the year. They sent us on our way and a short truck-bed ride, a longer bus and another shorter bus trip later we arrived in Nong Khai.

Departing ceremony for us as we left the home-stay. We were given bracelets and a prayer

Departing ceremony for us as we left the home-stay. We were given bracelets and a prayer

Nong Khai was equally off the beaten path; I didn’t see any other foreigners around as we rolled down the streets and unloaded into the quant alleyway. The town is surprisingly larger than one might think. High in the Northern part of Isaan, Nong Khai is another of the border cities the ornament the mighty Mekong River as it winds its way through the whole of Southeast Asia. It’s relatively quiet but robust population is largely similar to other populations in the area, but it has some cultural affects that make it a worthwhile stop: namely, a myriad of Watts and Buddhist Temples, and on top of that, a bizarre sculpture park unlike any other in the world. We arrived there at the hostel during the twilight hours. We checked into the rooms, but as we did the hostel owner made note that we should probably turn around and take in the final light of the day as it emptied out of the sky to the brown-green waters of the Mekong. We settled into our rooms as the sun settled under the horizon, and only after it projected a bright pink across the sky did we make it out to do some food exploration.

View from my hostel. In the foreground, the Mekong River, in the background Laos.

View from my hostel. In the foreground, the Mekong River, in the background, Laos.

I’d have to say the food was the best in Nong Khai. It was simple, with the same modest ingredients used around the area, but it’s Pad Thai, salted fish and grilled pork dishes were downright phenomenal. The night life of the people eating was a fun happening to witness as well; where in many places the phrase “night life” refers to a drinking culture, in Northern Thailand it certainly refers to an eating culture. Typically, and especially in Nong Khai, people eat multiple courses and multiple stalls in the course of the night (I even witnessed three ladies shut down a food stall by themselves as they ate all of the pork it had). By in large, the food and the night life, were exactly my speed, and I have to say that I kept up pace pretty well.

The next full day was spent exploring the city. I rented a bicycle from the hostel put some serious work into visiting all of the Watts and ancient Buddhist temples in the area. I was, in fact, some work, but after nearly a full morning of “Watt hopping”, and even a few invites to partake in chant rehearsal, I made my way across town to visit Sala Keoku; one of the strangest accumulations of sculpture in the world.

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I could’ve taken a cross-town bus if it was raining or cold, but the weather was clear and tolerably warm so I rode a bike out to the park. It’s about an hour ride, but once you get to within visual distance of the park sculptures you’ll realize you’re in a different sort of life-sized art gallery. No one goes there, but they really ought to. Upon entry you are caught amongst the stone slabs and iron rods that depict things not typically voiced by artists. Some are unpleasant, but impressive. Others are quite pleasant, and impressive.  There is a depth of emotion that plays out in the park that is quite rare, and a deep variety of religious and cultural icons that make the place both diametric and somehow balanced at the same time. Needless to say, it was one of my favorite places to visit in Thailand and well worth the bike ride.

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After a light bike ride back to the hostel in an even lighter rain, my full day in Nong Khai was finished but I felt satisfied with what I saw along the streets, markets and temples. From that point however, it was time to leave the town, and the next morning I loaded onto a bus that took me to Udon Thani and then an Air Asia flight back to Bangkok where I would spend my final night in Thailand. But before the final night ended, I had been invited by a friend to attend a special dinner for study abroad students in enrolled at a University in the city. It was a six or seven course meal at one of the finer restaurants in the city. I couldn’t even begin to say what I ate but as luck would have it I was able to eat there for free and meet some nervous students during their first week of life outside the U.S.  After a desert of some Mango cheesecake, it was a sweet way to end the night, and my time in Thailand. The next morning I took a relatively easy taxi ride to the airport and jumped on a plan back to KL: the first part of my trip was over, but an adventurous second act was in the making. I was on my way to Borneo.

Par II of “River; not Roads” will be continued in another post. Be sure to not read anything else in the mean time. You need rest. 

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“For from where did the food of my infancy come? From where does my desire, happiness, love and the needs of my being come?…According to Thine ordinance, whereby Thou distributes riches through the hidden springs of all things.” –Saint Augustine

Initial Views of Thailand

Due to some technical and other difficulties here are some preliminary images of Thailand

Update soon to come.

“Summer of the Soul”

Representing America, in Malaysia.

Representing America, in Malaysia.

It’s August now. Not that that makes a huge difference here! In Malaysia, weather patterns, temperatures, smog and the prevailing spirit of the Malaysian people persist to be more or less consistent since I have arrived in this corner of the earth. Months typically don’t make much of a difference in this warm world. However, July proved to be quite unique in a myriad of ways, both surprising, and unsurprising.  Ways that would make you think about home, country, those honored blessings of family and friends, and certainly God.

 Not that my mind is absent of these things during other times, for it is certainly not; these seven months here have proven to be the most substantively contemplative and formative of my life, but maybe because of the separation or confliction of views my mind has dwelled on those things and taken up residence in the realm of principle. And it’s been different here.  I have now plodded through the meatiest part of my time abroad and it’s hard to say that I don’t think differently now.  Assuredly, my thoughts have developed and I have converted to become more comfortable with them, and with where I am.

For starters, I have been busy enough that my routine, though seemingly manufactured for just this year at the beginning, has taken shape as something very normal. When I come home, I feel as though I am home. When I go to work, I feel as though this is my real job. When I go out, I feel as though I am part of the community. I no longer worry about stares or awkward glances, and I don’t often get them anymore. In fact, in the small town of Maran what once seemed infinitely novel and exhilarating has become more commonplace. Largely, I believe that I have found some assimilation, that is, until I see something like a six foot 150 pound Monitor Lizard cross in front of my motorcycle as I head to school, and am invariably shaken out of it!

Dinosaurs live in Malaysia!

But I am just busy in enough in school and in weekend sightseeing that it all seems normal now. After my last mid-year holiday I got bogged down in some heavy scheduling both during and after school hours. In my lessons I really decided to do a lot of more thought provoking things; things that make my students think not only in terms of the English language, but also in terms of where they are in the world, what kinds of problems we have here, and ultimately what can we do to be problem solvers in today’s world. These are hard and weighty concepts for any students to comprehend, and it took a lot of work ,but I feel like I would be doing a great disservice if I didn’t try to impart some deeper knowledge on my students while I am here—give them some critical thinking skills, some empathy.

Consequently, I have focused on some weightier concepts in class as well. Teaching things like environmentalism and air pollution as well as social problems such as smoking, drugs, violent crimes, racism, sexism and general inequality. (All were in pretty light and unassuming lessons, but surprisingly the students talked about them all.) We have discussed ambitions, aspirations and dreams (in much fewer words) and about the prodigious and storied heroes that have brought us change when the world needed it most. Teaching students how to confidently speak English is much more rewarding when you can marry it with something more big picture; teaching students how to give a proper presentation while introducing them to figures like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela is a pretty insightful lesson—one that I hope they won’t forget anytime soon. For example, on the week of 4th of July I had all of my classes learn about some of the founding fathers of the United States, and the vocabulary definitions of the words of the Declaration of Independence, all while practicing it in choral speaking. Of course I did this! And I did this because it was of course adorable, but what’s more, it is beyond rewarding to teach someone what words like equality and liberty actually mean. I have plugged in many school hours over the month and a half to make sure that I see almost every student in my school at least once a week so that they don’t miss out on such important and universal tenets—principles that certainly apply to all of them.  One of my all time favorite teaching moments.

Apart from teaching my regular classes, which feels more and more regular with the passing of the days, I have also been teaching some extensive after school classes to my form six students in order to help them for their University entry  English proficiency exam (MUET). My 19 and 20 year old students were extremely nervous about this greatly important test and wanted to meet as much as possible before they took it. In order to help them study and prepare them for one of the more important tests they will ever take in their life, I had extra class with them almost every day in July. We practiced reading, writing, speaking and listening,; all of which have their own section of the test given on different days. Teaching basic essay writing format was a big game changer, as was learning how to read to understand among other things and I think the classes had a great impact on how they performed, plus we had a lot of fun doing things like dissecting Woody and Buzz’s conversations in “Toy Story”.  And finally, they did take their exams and for the most part they were really happy with how they did. I am excited for the results to come back as it will be a really tangible gauge of my teaching.

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Outside of class, and more different classes, I have been busy doing a number of things. My school had a sports day a couple weekends back. It was a hilarious display of Malay athleticism. I, of course the assumed American super athlete was told to coach all the students in running technique and how to throw the shot-put and discus. It’s a play of extremely cruel and hilarious irony that I am considered a near Olympian here just because of my skin color. I guess I’ll take it for once in my life, though I have literally never done any of those competitions competitively before. After winning a race and a the high jump all while never fainting once, (something that nearly every student did after a race, strangely) I called it a day.

Sports Day!

Sports Day!

EVERY female student fainted after running their race. So dramatic. So hilarious!

EVERY female student fainted after running their race. So dramatic. So hilarious!

Other weekends have been filled with more exterior excursions and explorations. I’ve been to a couple of neighboring towns, helped slaughter my first cow ever, ate its tongue, ate horse meat, gone white water rafting, Island hopping, and partially completed one of my more favorite excursions of the year: visited Borneo.

One of my students holding the cow's tongue. We then proceeded to eat said tongue....

One of my students holding the cow’s tongue. We then proceeded to eat said tongue….

A midnight slaughter party with some of the male teachers at my school.

A midnight slaughter party with some of the male teachers at my school.

The last weekend of June I attended the Rain Forest Music Festival with a large number of ETAs for a raucous good time down in the one of the oldest and least explored Jungles in the world. The venue just outside of Kuching was spectacular and the music, which was based on traditional music from indigenous equatorial tribes around the world, was equally impressive. I spent two days there and fell in love with the atmosphere. I remember being little and reading about the Wild Men of Borneo, or the Head Hunters of Borneo and always thought, “wouldn’t it be wild if I ever had the chance to go there?” I played out my dreams in this short time span and went to a place that I have always wanted to go, and played a major role in my selection of Malaysia for a Fulbright. The naturalist inside me loves Borneo. And I even had the breathtaking opportunity to see some of the most rare and most human-like creatures in the world. All of my life I have wanted to see a wild Orangutan, and this year, I saw one. I went t to the National Park early one morning where they are said to feed rehabilitated wild Orangutans. Another friend and I made our way with a guide deep into the Jungle on a narrow path until we reached a platform in a very dense part of the forest. The guide merely set some fruit on the platform and warned us that we might not see one; some days they come, some days they don’t. But as we waited to the deafening sounds of the jungle—screaming insects and dinning birds—there we saw a tree bend in the distance. For a great while we could see nothing of the creature only the bending of trees reaching closer and closer. It was almost as if the animal could control the trees by having them convey him from one point to another. He finally emerged from the foliage and swung down a rope to the platform. He ate contentedly as at least 4 other Orangutans descended upon the fruit; a rare sight to see so many in one spot even at this location of the park. I have to say watching the silent and masterfully careful decent of the creatures to my proximity was one of the coolest natural sights I’ve ever seen. The child inside of me was shrieking, but I kept my composure in front of other human beings.  DSC03848

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Aside from weekend excursions and school, July has been a predominantly reflective month. Such reflection has been brought about by the Muslim season of Ramadan. For the past number of weeks Ramadan has been in full swing and the honored month of fasting and meditating has put me at the liberty to think and read. I have done some substantial reading since being here, most of it has been time spent on the classics of philosophy and literature, but I have really started diving into more theological and religious readings. I have been fasting and meditating with the community and despite its challenges I have found it an admirable and worthwhile dogma; one of the more rewarding aspects of my year. Don’t worry. I am not going to dive into a deluge of new beliefs or epiphanies or anything of that nature. This is far too much of a strange and public format for me to do anything like that. But I do have to say that I have a much greater appreciation for Islam, the prophet Mohammed, and the staggering devoutness of those who follow the Muslim tradition. It is certainly a worthwhile religion of study. And to be honest one that is far more similar to Christianity that it is different. The commonalities continue for days, and I have had many conversations with Muslim friends that go deep into the hours of the night about the beliefs of our related faiths.

Be certain that though I view Islam, Hinduism and even Buddhism in a much stronger and respectable light, I have also grown to place pantheism, agnosticism, atheism and Universalism in a much weaker sense, and in many ways have become baffled by the contradictory  logic and rationale that lead to such convictions in combative atheist works like, “God is not Great”.  If nothing else from this year, though I have not been able to attend church more the a couple of times and have been distantly separated from any Christian community, I have been drawn closer to the Christian doctrines and the convictions that I have of the supernatural, the creation, the messianic embodiment, the salvation, and the judgment have been placed ever firmer on the rock of the Father’s divine logic and rationale for the universe. It has made the summer perhaps the most constructive of my convictions. And as I am far away from home, the community that I love and the body of Christ which I miss dearly, this has proven to be my biggest growing season; the summer of the soul.

Missing one’s country is sobering. Missing one’s home and one’s family is saddening. Missing those blessed ceremonies of matrimony of those whom you love is tough. But the soul needs a season of growth. The soul needs time to stretch; time to bend and a time to reach its potential of peace and life. The soul needs it’s summer. Mine has simply been different—that’s all.  Different than the summers of years past, but reaching the same end.

That is to say, during the months between May and September in the great Midwest, extraordinary things happen. That which used to be russet and lifeless bursts into existence, erupting in bright greens, lavish hues of reds and blues—stark, purely fresh whites can be seen from wedding ceremonies to  cities’ bathed in morning-glories, and the people, those hearty and dearly patient people that waited all those long months of the year for a glimpse at the sun and a warm breeze finally find their peace, and life, in summer.

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” – Keller

Views from Vietnam and Cambodia

“Not all those who wander are lost.”

The morning breaks over the Temple of the Kings--Angkor Wat.

The morning breaks over the Temple of the Kings–Angkor Wat.

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WARNING: You may want to break up reading this into two or three shifts.  Remember to stand up and stretch your legs to avoid blood clots.  Pictures will come later in case you are thinking about slacking.

There are certain places that you go to and while you are there, you are certain you will never be there again. Two weeks ago I was with a friend I had made on a boat tour of Ha Long Bay in North Vietnam. We strolled through a massive cave of more than 50 feet in height and an unknown measure into the earths depths; as I stood in my infantile way staring up at the sole opening high above me, watching the midday sun cascade down to pierce the light starved darkness, the young med-student from New York slowly stepped just beside me and said: “I will NEVER be here, right here, ever again.”  How did we wander our way into this magnificent place; a place that if we didn’t happen to wander into it, and even if no one ever had the chance of landing their eyes upon it, it would still be just as beautiful all the same? We were certainly aimlessly wondering, but as Tolkien writes we were not lost, but found beauty and ourselves exactly where we needed to be.  I guess after all, a good traveler is never too intent on arriving anywhere, but seeks the beauty of where they find themselves.  Over the past three weeks I have found myself (sometimes I even forgot how I got there) in a variety of new, remote and strange places: jungles, islands, ancient temples and rare wonders of the world—places that I had actually heard of, but definitely never thought I would be able to go to.

The wanderings started once my family arrived in Malaysia. Yes, after long last the Blauw clan descended upon the poor people of the Malay Peninsula with their white and outstanding giant-like features. We were turning heads from beginning to finish and received a lot of pleasant attention.  I have to say it was a great relief to see my parents, sister, and Aunt. I was starting to really miss their zany West Michigan Dutch tendencies, especially during Tulip time! Anyway, we made a very enjoyable splash in this part of the world as we did some thorough wandering of Malaysia.

It was a raucous good time having my family around. They made sure to have a visit that included at least one school day. They started their trip in Kuantan were they stayed a very nice beachside hotel, a very rare occurrence for the Blauw family, but this was par for the course for this particular trip; I even heard Dan Blauw say the words, “money is no object”. (The first and last time those will ever be heard) We had the opportunity to be taken out to eat by a couple of my local friends and teachers and it was a great time. They then moved on to staying at the very peaceful, very beautiful village of Maran, where they attend a full school day with me. I have to say, that the day that my family came to school ranks as one of my favorite days of the year. I was really exciting and really hilarious to see how my students reacted to my family being there after weeks of preparation; they after all, wrote the letters telling my parents they should make a visit in the first place. But when the day finally arrived most of them were very shy and tended to keep their words to themselves and just look. But in other cases, and particularly with my female students, they really took a liking to my Mom, Sister and Aunt and they ever were far more outgoing and talkative with them then they have ever been with me.  My family answered a lot of questions, ate a lot of free food and even got multiple tours of the school during their day. It was a blast and the students will not stop talking about them and how beautiful they all were.

Blauw Invasion

Blauw Invasion

After a tiring day at school we explored Maran and on the next day as I finished my last day of classes before my Holiday break my parents went to see the elephants and the local sanctuary. Shortly after we set off on a rather early adventure to drive our rental car back to Kuala Lumpur for where we would stay for a couple of nights. The drive was a little bit hectic do to the Chinese Holiday but after we made it we stay in luxury again in KL and explored the city for the next couple of days, including a very quick, but very efficient trip to Melaka for a day.

After checking off all of the main sites in KL we then made the last leg of our journey as a family to the pristine and remote Island of Tioman on the East Coast of the Malay Peninsula. Tioman is world renowned for its inland wildlife, secluded beaches world class marine bio-diversity—it is perpetually ranked among the top ten of the best scuba diving and snorkeling locations in the world. As a result, we surely did some snorkeling. And it was quite easy to see way it has such a reputation. Any kind of fish I have ever seen in an aquarium in the United States was easily found. The waters were absolutely teaming with life in certain places and exploding in bright vibrant colors that were curiously trying to discover whether we were dangerous or edible.  I quickly found every kind of fish and coral in the movie ‘Finding Nemo’—including Nemo.

On land, the Island was just as interesting though. Tioman is a real life Jurassic Park which boasts the world’s largest lizards, crocodiles, Fruit bats and bugs. My parents have some great videos of two 100 pound plus Monitor Lizards fighting in a river for dominance—it was wild! We did some hiking, a jeep ride and saw some sea Turtles on the Islands small sanctuary. But maybe more than anything else the Island get away was really nice to relax sleep and just swim around with my family on one of the more beautiful islands in the world. Not a bad deal.

However, it did have to come to an end though and on the morning of our third day on Tioman my family loaded onto the small propeller plane at easily the smallest airport I’ve ever been too and flew their way to Singapore in order to start their journey back home. I on the other hand stayed to take the later flight to KL where I would start the main brunt of my holiday travels. After staying a quick night in KL I had a flight to Ha Noi Vietnam early the next morning. I would be using the rest of my holiday days very wisely in North Vietnam and Cambodia, taking in some of the Natural and ancient wonders of the world.

Break number One: Go get a snack.

The decision to go to Vietnam during my time on this side of the earth was made a long time ago, as was my decision to go to Cambodia; they are beautiful places that hold much interest for students of history. I of course had studied a little bit about Vietnam and its war-torn history in school. Violence and war have dominated the country’s historical and cultural cannon for 1000’s of years; only recently since 1980 has Vietnam been a peaceful place and it is currently sitting on one of the rare stretches of time when it is not involved in any conflict. Plus, anyone that has ever been there will certainly tell you that it’s culture as a result has developed very differently from the other surrounding countries.  In addition, there is of course a fair level of awkward bagged that attends you as you go to Vietnam as an American.  But I figured that this would also be a trip in educational exchange, as more Americans visit, people can see that we are not demonic killing machines that are bent on invading, conquering and destroying their way of life, as they have been taught. Dealing with the guilt or frustration of visiting a country that we were not so long ago entrenched in a devastating war with was a challenge for me, and a lesson which was a tough learning experience in developing what I believe about armed conflict and international relations.

After much thought, when I first arrived in Ha Noi I made the decision to always introduce myself as who I was, an American, doing otherwise would defeat a large reason for way I was there and of course be lying. Initially, I was surprised at the welcome response I received at the airport upon telling people I was from the United States of America, but also in how little English was spoken, how much cooler the temperature was from Malaysia, and at the expansively flat  part of the country I was in.  I took a relatively quick bus ride from the airport to my hostel where it quickly became very evident to me that I was now clearly in a third world country that was far less developed than Malaysia, and where things such as the countless rice fields have remained totally unchanged since the time of the war and far beyond. Roads in Vietnam were perhaps better than those in Nepal, but the tumult that took place on them was unlike anything I had ever seen. Our bus was part of a torrent of motor vehicles doing exactly whatever they wanted to do: full of people on foot, bicycles, and baskets carrying all things from dogs to fruit to piping, cars and millions of motorcycles. The road played a stark contrast against the emerald green backdrop of rice paddies that held their persistent workers peacefully doing what they have done every day for their entire lives.

Where I stayed the first night in Ha Noi was plenty nice. It was situated right in the middle of the overwhelmingly bustling city and was within walking distance of most of the museums and sights. The rest of the day was filled with vigorous sightseeing with another solo 23 year old from Long Island who was traveling before he started Med-school in the fall. We got along well and found we were very similar quickly, and as we perused around the narrow and vegetated city streets we stopped to try some street food, ducked into small shops in alleyways and even ascended to a secluded rooftop café and drank Weasel Coffee (made from coffee beans that had passed through the guts of a weasel, thus making it more clean and delicious somehow) as we watched the evening traffic play out its terrifying game.

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For the rest of my day I went to a couple of museums including the Temple of Literate, the Fine Arts museum and made a point to stop by and see the Ha Noi Hilton, the infamous prison were Senator John McCain was held during the waning years of the Vietnam war.  It was frustrating reading the government-line information in such museums but I learned to not be upset and take all information, attitudes and emotions with a grain of salt. Overall, I found Ha Noi a very pleasant place—it was very charming and unique, most of the people there were quite friendly and even insisted on giving us free things (thus, the only reason way I would really ever drink weasel coffee!). That evening though I was looking into options to see the sights outside of the city. In particular, I knew I had to see Ha Long Bay, Southeast Asia’s equivalent to the Grand Canyon and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the world.  Boat cruises of the bay were abundant, but the one offered by my hostel seemed to be more of a booze cruise than anything else so I decided to go elsewhere. With the help of my Long Island friend and 5 other guys my age from south London  we found a very good, very cheap, elaborate 3 day cruise of the bay for just 83 US Dollars, all inclusive, and we nearly had the whole boat to ourselves.  We paid the money and left the next morning.

The bus ride out to the bay was only about 100 Km away but because of the traffic and roads it turned out to be one of my least favorite 4 hour bus rides I’ve taken thus far. But as we arrived, amongst the touristy flotilla at dock was our ship, The FantaSEA, waiting to take us into the heart of the one of the most bizarre formations of land in the world.  Once we were on board we were shocked at how nice and how good the food was on the boat, plus, they literally fed us until we couldn’t take any more. And with that, we set sail to our first dock where we would be able to explore an island riddled with caves. We found our way into some spectacular places—vast open caverns that we knew very few eyes have ever beheld. Most caves on the island were just discovered in the 90’s by tourist like us. When we emerged on then opposite side of the island we saw for the first time the gigantic spike-like land formations that jutted up out of the water as if the laws of gravity did not apply to them. Everywhere, any which way one turned there was an equally or more odd formation around every corner—a sea of deserted islands floating on a sea of deep green water.

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We boarded our boat again and in disbelief sailed to a city of floating rafts where we would get out again and go Kayaking through some more caves and around the bay for a couple of hours. I suppose that this is a good spot to say that there are people that live in Ha Long bay. Almost none of them live on any of the 1,967 islands but nearly all of them live exclusively on these floating rafts and boats that are anchored to the floor bed. Many of these people live entirely off of the sea and many never even set foot on land—when they do, they get land sickness because their body is so used to being gently rocked by the sea.  This is where we got our kayaks and started floating our way in and out of caves and hollow lagoons.  It was easily one of the more unbelievable things I’ve done, in one of the most beautifully abnormal settings in the world. Soon thereafter we got back on the boat after playing in the water for a while and sailed to port where we spent our first night on an island called Cat Ba. DSC02968

We stayed the night in Cat Ba at a much better hotel than expected and woke up  the next day and walked through a market selling some of the most absurd sea food items I have ever seen, including: Mantis Shrimp, sea slugs, jellyfish, soft-shell crabs, as well as  a healthy amount of decapitated snakes and lizards. After that we were taken hiking in the Cat Ba National Park where we climbed to a spectacular view of the strangely toothed island and where we climbed to the top of one of the most precariously constructed and thoroughly rusted pile of a fire tower atop the mountain. As awesome as the view was if there was any place that I probably should not have been over the course of the trip, it was at the top of that fire tower where at the panicle of an 80 foot climb we found just a few un-nailed boards. We hastily made our way back to the bottom and made our way back to the boat after our hike where we were taken out to anchor for then night and watched the sun go down over the bay.

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It was during this part of the trip that one of the happiest moments turned into one of the most painful. As we were anchored to spend the night on the ship the sky burst into those marvelous hues of twilight and we decided to go swimming. But of course we didn’t just simply go swimming, we were on a two story sleeper ship, so rightly, we decided to jump off the top of the ship into the warm waters below. It was a blast and just about the perfect way to celebrate sundown on a great day. But as we were discussing what kinds of unseen creatures are swimming just beneath us my knee touched something that felt like a soft ball covered in needles. I recoiled but I couldn’t see what it was so my knee hit it again. It was then very clear to me that I had swam into a jellyfish and it had stung me a number of times. I of course became paranoid for a couple of moments in the water as I rushed to the ladder—I know jellyfish stings can kill people and my knee quickly started experiencing some shooting pain. As I jumped up the ladder I told our captain what had happened and his calm reaction put me at ease. He told me there was very little that can be done for these kinds of jellyfish stings but that it didn’t require any medical attention. He said with a smile on his face that all I could really do to relieve the pain was to pee on the sting.  So with little other options and my knee quickly swelling I went to the bathroom and did what I never thought I would: I intentionally peed on myself. There’s a first time for everything I guess. Eventually, I think it might have helped the pain a little bit, but the pain was intense for a couple of hours and my knee turned into something that more resembled a red volleyball than a human body part. But I had no reason to not enjoy the rest of the night with the other guests, and we did some fishing and I went right to bed afterwards.

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The next morning I felt much better, and our last day on the bay was very pleasant, we even went swimming again. We sailed to our original port on Ha Long bay and on the way we passed by some more spectacular sights and floating villages and took hundreds of pictures. Once  off the ship we ate a final meal together and got back on the bus to go back to Ha Noi. This is where I would part ways with me friends as I had a flight ticket to Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, that night. I took some time to walk around the city at night and with the help of a local man who wanted to practice his English with me I made my way without a hitch to the airport and flew into the night to Southern Vietnam.

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I have to say that I didn’t like southern Vietnam as much as I liked Northern Vietnam, but I’m sure part of it was due to my first impression of Ho Chi Minh City. On the cab ride from the airport to my hostel, which was not in as nice an area, I had a dispute with the driver about how much it should cost. He was asking for 10 times what it should have been. As I gave him more than what I should have and asked for change he got out of the car and set my bag on the curb. Wanting to go get my bag on the busy street the man took my large bills and instead of giving me any change just drove away with my money. It was only about the equivalent of 23 dollars, but it was the first time that anyone has ever outright stolen from me. I would like to think that it was some kind of miscommunication since he didn’t really speak English, but I know that he had a great opportunity to just drive away and make a lot of money, and that’s just what he did. Upset at myself, I settled into my hostel and got ready for a long day of sightseeing the next day.

I set out to see almost everything in Saigon on that next day and I think I did a pretty good job. Exploring with another ETA we managed to see a number of old French constructions like the Cathedral of Notre Dame, numerous government buildings and a variety of museums. Saigon is a noticeably French colonial city. Many of its streets are constructed into broad, sweeping boulevards perforated with parks full of people sitting walking, playing games and performing hilarious exercises. Most notably I saw the President’s Palace, the old Opera house but the War Remnants museum stood out the most to me.  The War Remnants museum was the most striking sight of the day. Filled with old U.S. military equipment and within it was a museum on the war atrocities of the U.S. against the Vietnamese people.  The information was frustratingly skewed and painted the U.S.  in the most negative light possible, but going to it definitely proved to be a good lesson in empathy.  The next day was another lesson in understanding as I went to the Cu Chi Tunnels, the tunnel system the communist forces built outside of Saigon in order to attack the city during the Tet Offensive.  Our tour guide was an ex-southern Vietnamese soldier so it was interesting to hear a contradiction to the government propaganda that was so prevalent at the site, such as the videos and signs hailing the communist liberation fighters and the American-killer heroes. The whole site though gave me very good perspective on what the war fully entailed and a little bit about the experience of the soldiers on both sides. It was an eerie but rewarding day being there.

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Vietnam was enjoyable overall. The people were active, very hard working and for the most part interested in me, though not as welcoming and warm as Malaysians, the food was pretty good too, and the sights were pretty spectacular and educational. I did get my fill of Vietnam though, and I was ready to see Cambodia and explore a country that I knew relatively very little about.

Break Two: Avoid blood clots and get up and do something.

Cambodia is an exotic and beautiful country; it unfortunately is also the poorest country I have ever been in, without question. I took a bus from Ho Chi Minh City to the capitol city of Phnom Pen. Immediately, it was noticeable that Cambodia was even more, much more, untouched by the hand of time than Vietnam.  Again, I was surprised to see how flat and open the country was on my bus ride. It reminded me of the large swaths of land in the middle of America, like if Iowa was much hotter and had about a foot more rain a year it, would look a little bit like Cambodia. But what was so wonderfully different there were the houses along the road. Nearly all of the rural homes in Cambodia, apart from being impoverished and not having electricity or running water, were about two stories up on stilts. Not too different than many Malaysian homes and it gave me a good sense of what Malaysia might have looked like maybe 20 or 30 years ago. The ride was not too unpleasant as it had some hilarious Cambodian music videos playing on screen and some of the world’s most beautiful rice paddies and swampy grasslands packed with high reaching and wonderfully colored Lotus flowers.

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Arrival in Phnom Pen drove home a sad truth: that Cambodia’s recent narrative is plagued by wretched poverty and the haunting shadow of genocide. My hostel was near the river, a pretty nice part of town, but it was really very clear that Phnom Pen is not a tourist destination for too many westerners. Most people that go to Phnom Pen go to get a sense of the history of the country and the terrible legacy that the Khmer Rouge left.  The main sights that I saw there had to do with the genocide museums and the infamous Killing Fields. My first day of somber sightseeing was matched with some grey and dreary weather. I attended the city’s largest museum known as the Killing Fields just outside of the city.  Here, from 1975 to 1779 nearly 1,000 people were murdered and their bodies left in large, damp, open holes in the ground as the Communist Khmer Rouge government went through its cultural cleansing process by killing all intellectuals in the country.  The methods for killing were systematic, but the reasons for killing who they did were erratic and fickle. As a result 1 in every 4 persons in Cambodia was killed by 1979, and today 63% of the country’s population is under the age of 25. DSC03262

Scares from this kind of national history are still very visible and Cambodia still hasn’t fully recovered being much behind the rest of the region. Visiting these places, along with the genocide museum were eye opening, but so was driving around the city. I had never really seen shanty towns in my life or naked children walking the streets alone or toddlers’ scouring through heaps of garbage in hopes of finding food. Seeing things in real time are deeply troubling. And even as I tried to give some money to people, no matter how many children were able to tight-fist the money I gave them and run away, there was only so much I could do. It made me awfully guilty in a way; in all my life I have experienced no pain or suffering like this, I have always been free from want; loneliness has never found me anywhere. Poverty I suppose can make even the well-off seem very small.

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Phnom Pen was an interesting visit that I am convinced will stick with me maybe more so than other places I have been. But I didn’t have much time there. After two days I was on another bus to Siem Reap. After another 7 hour bus ride where we stopped twice and some people got some snacks (snacks which included fried insects, and scorpions!), I tried a dried scorpion that was given to me and got back on the bus. We arrived in Siem Reap and I emerged from the bus to get my bag and discovered that my backpack had been sitting next to a bunch of construction material, a basket of baby chickens, and a plastic bag of about 7 dead ducks. Buses are very efficient in Southeast Asia.

Siem Reap is a very different place then Phnom Pen. It is a tourist hotspot for nearly everyone that goes to Southeast Asia. I meet very few other Americans while traveling, but in Siem Reap I met an American hostel owner from Missoula Montana, a tourist from Southfield Michigan and an entire group of students that had just graduated from U of M business school. The city is very touristy and is filled with streets and streets of western food restaurants, massage shops and a “Pub Street”. Pretty nice, but not what I expected. This is of course because nearly 1 million people visit the Temples of Angkor Wat every year, and for good reason, they are awe-inspiring and thought provoking in a way that only the Pyramids in Egypt, Mexico and the Great Wall of China are.  The mathematical prowess and technical quality of these ancient constructers was simply astounding.

The next morning started very early and I had a full day of temple hopping to do. I woke up around 4:30 AM and set out with some friends to see the sunrise at the most famous Temple of Angkor Wat referred to as the Temple of the Kings. A dark Tuck-tuck ride to the Temple finished by arriving with a couple hundred other people at the temple. I made my way to a reflection pond where few others were and awaited the slow raise of the sun. Looming just ahead was the oldest intact structure I had ever seen, dating back from more than a millennia ago. Its darkened pillars began to fade into light as the sun climbed and the shades of the firmament changed with the minutes. Soon light began to break forth through the trees and illuminated the entire seen: an enormous and mysterious monument of antiquity surrounded by a whirl of water, and as the sun summited the tree line the once glassy sleeping pond erupted into a bubbling torrent of life, where fish vivaciously lapped the water and dragonflies happily performed their aerial acrobatics. Monks welcomed the morning with their chants in the distance and it was clear morning had finally broken over Angkor Wat, the same way it had for hundreds of years.

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The rest of the day was vigorous. I was determined to see as many Temples as I could. The Park of Angkor Wat is not one temple but rather hundreds of temples. What makes it so astounding is not really the size of the temples or so much their age, as large and ancient as they are, but rather it is the sure immensity of the complex. During its prime the area would have been teaming with people and flooded with water as irrigation dikes made it an emporium of trade and agriculture. You could walk through the jungle at almost any juncture and be sure to eventually run into a wall, terrace, ditch or religious temple from the era. Needless to say, this was probably as busy as my camera has ever been. Temple after temple, wall after wall, carving after carving they were all different and held their own story. How could people do these things in the middle of the jungle in Cambodia over 1,000 years ago? This was the question that never left your mind. What had these places seen in their lifetime? Massive gum trees  and other vegetation over seven hundred years old were now reclaiming the temple as a part of jungle, and these massive monuments of stone were now somewhere stuck in the middle of being part of civilization and the natural world.

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Standing underneath a tree.

I tried to keep up my break neck pace for as long as I could. I think I might have been more curious then the average person as a student of history, but at a certain point curiosity dies and at around 11 hours of seeing as much as I could I was too tired to keep my interest. I got a tuck-tuck driver to take me back to the town and get some pretty good Cambodian food and a 13 cent beer. The nights were lively in Siem Reap, but a little bit too much in a way that children are active when their parents are gone. People do anything they want because they can and it’s cheap. I went to bed so I could go back out Temples again in the morning.

I couldn’t have asked for a better last day of my trip. I spent the day under a cobalt sky spotted with sterling wisps of white and silver clouds. I was by myself which was nice; I never found traveling alone to be cumbersome. The day was filled with more beauty, maybe more beauty than I was used to seeing or at least a very different kind of it. I sat for long periods of time and imagined what my life would have been like if I lived anywhere else other than where I do or during any other time. There are not too many other places better to reflect than at a Wonder of the World.

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I understand the luxury of going on a trip like this is rare and I am extremely thankful for it. I flew out of Siem Reap and made my way back to Maran. It’s pretty cool to return home from a world class vacation when your home is in Malaysia. At this time I am finally starting to get a feel for the length of the grant. And I know I will be here for another 5 months, and even though I have my mid-year evaluations and I am half way done, I am still enjoying my time here as if it is new. As the time passes though there are days starting to pop up where it’s a hard to be away from home: missing weddings, celebrations, an entire Michigan summer, these things are hard to miss but right now I still know I have the opportunity to do some awesome things.

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Sun sets over Siem Reap.

You made it. It’s probably late in the night so you should eat something now and go to sleep.

Until next time,

Michael

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” –Mark Twain.