Traveling With a Tender Heart

Refugees from northern Thailand have lived for three generations under the highway in Bangkok, squatting on Port Authority land. They have nothing to go back to. IMG_8944The rice fields and their homes are long gone.IMG_8940

There’s a man named Thai who was a champion kick-boxer who runs an open air gym underneath the overhead thumping and growling traffic. He wants to keep kids away from drugs and other bad influences by training them to excel in a lucrative competition that offers a chance for success.

Young men sacrifice gallons of sweat, honing the sport on dreams filled with hope.

I walked with the mayor of this small village, down narrow paths hemmed in by ramschackle dwellings made from items found in garbage bins. Babies played or old men napped in the golden afternoon light.

There’s a small grocery in the front room of one home. The owner wheels a cart, piled high with goods for sale. Her voice echoes up and down the maze of passageways. Chickens are raised in one section, roosters saved for fights and gambling. There’s a meger pharmacy, sans a druggist, doctor or nurse. The community struggles to be self-sufficient.


I became a pied-piper, drawing in so many children who wanted stickers I brought to pass out in exchange for a smile. A few crafty ones returned with another shirt, hoping I wouldn’t recognize them, waiting in line for a second helping of goodies.

Why don’t these families move on, absorbing themselves into the open air and sunglight of Bangkok? When faced with the question, the mayor answered, “This is our home.”


Visiting the Hmong refugee village near Luang Prabang in Laos felt much the same. These northern people, in danger from unexploded United States cluster bombs, were moved by their government from hollowed craters where poppies grow, ripe with opium.


Life moves on in this village, where these strangers aren’t accepted by other Laotians. A woman pumps air into a forge where her husband squats at the flame and crafts knives. A retired man makes bird and fish cages out of reeds. Women thread looms, making scarves  with babies at their sides. Another group of women embroider fabrics to sell at market. Children play games with rocks, climb trees, and go to a one-room school. Everyone smiles and waves.


The best way to keep cultural identity and traditions alive is to remain in a group strengthing the community, even if living conditions aren’t ideal.  We were invited into the leader’s home and spent some time talking about the dispersed Hmong people and what a typical day is like.


He later dressed in a traditional outfit and played music for us. Plied with local moonshine, we were embolded to eat appetizers of fried crickets, silk worms, and cacoon of moth before a beautiful feast was prepared in our honor.


We were welcomed with such grace and open arms.  I wondered at the cost and time of hosting such an elaborate meal and felt guilty about using their resources.

‘HOME’ is a complicated word that cannot convey the depth of feeeling within a heart or an ethnic group. If I were a painter, I’d splash and swirl colors of the rainbow to try and give you the meaning. Musicians might compose a sound that would vibrate inside your soul. All of these arts cannot surpase the simple act of a well meant hug.

Daily Life (in the village of Mershina)

The most common question I receive about Bhutan (after “where?”) is a curiosity about how a typical family might live.

Mershina is a village surrounded by beautiful rice paddies and sits below a famous  fertility monastery (more on that later). Their claim to fame is anything in the shape of a penis–for example, an anatomical key chain keepsake.

I resisted the urge and didn’t buy one. Not even the pink one with wings. Although I’m progressing with tongue-in-cheek, infertile couples from around the world come here for the monk’s ceremony and blessing. There’s a book with tales of success inside the temple.

The exterior pictures of the homes in the banner belies what’s inside. We visited a 70 year-old woman who lives with her daughter, her son-in-law and their four children.

The ground floor is the barn where they keep their water buffalo, goats, and chickens.  The grand-daughter worked in a small shed,  toasting rice they harvested to sell at the market. This treat tastes like Rice Krispies without honey or sugar. IMG_7621

Here’s a juxtaposition: This young lady was home on a college vacation. Her right foot stands in the 21st Century and the left totters in Medieval times. She has no intention of spending a traditional life living in a small farming village.

Climbing steep wood stairs,  we entered the living room. A small color TV was on, images of the Buddhist festival in Thimphu flitted across the screen. The grandmother sat cross-legged on a mat as she invited guests to sit on her new couch. Most homes don’t have such luxurious furniture. She offered us food. Drink. Hospitality. It was an honor that we came to see her.

We proceeded to ask the family questions about life in Bhutan while the grandmother and daughter chewed doma, their lips stained red and teeth blackened by the stimulant in the nut. The grand-daughter on the left side of the photo told us (In English) that she won’t chew and become addicted like her elders.

The grandmother asked us a hard question. “How many hours do you have to ride a bus from here to California in the United States?” We looked at each other stymied, trying to figure out how to explain geographic distance to someone who didn’t know the world. After complex math based upon a 48 mile bus ride to Thimphu taking  3 hours, we came up with an impossible guesstimate of 21 days. Since she’d never seen an airplane, she wouldn’t grasp the concept of traveling across the globe faster.

After much laughter, we were invited to tour the house. The left picture above is a Buddhist altar with hanging ceremonial drums and the kitchen is quite modern with a new indoor water spigot and a refrigerator.

But a home is measured by more than “things”. A family and their happiness is something transparent. It’s a moment offered with love. It’s hidden in a smile and shared with faith. Happiness is reaching out across cultural differences and finding the common joyous denominator, even when we are so far apart. IMG_7639