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In Laos, I’ve found that the true heart of Luang Prabang is just around the corner.

The universal greeting here in Laos seems to always be delivered with a smile that can melt the gruffest exterior and fill you with a warm glow that will last through the day.  Luang Prabang, the former capital of the kingdom of Laos and a UNESCO world heritage site, offers a magical spot to immerse yourself in the rich heritage of this country and culture.

As you gaze to the horizon, you see mountains shrouded in mist and slow muddy rivers that surround this city of approximately 56,000 in north central Laos.  But the defining image of Luang Prabang are temple complexes called Wats.  In fact Luang Prabang, literally means “Royal Buddha Image” and while most outsiders would not realize it, the “city” actually comprises more than a score of villages.  Each Wat is supported by a single village, a community of households devoted to its upkeep and the support of a monastery filled with novices, monks and the lead abbot.

I could post a hundred images and only scratch the surface but here are a few from my walk today.

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As you can imagine, that beauty attracts many many tourists.  Don’t get me wrong, I embrace that I am among their ranks.  The guest houses, coffee shops, restaurants, and markets here offer conveniences and services that I fully appreciate.  But I’ve found that the true heart of Luang Prabang is just around the corner.

You should enjoy the markets offering crafts, souvenirs and street food, but it was down a small alleyway that I ran across stands selling items few tourists would even glance at that were filled with locals doing their daily shopping.  It is here that I take a deep breath and soak in the scene.

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img_9087660b8127-370e-4917-bd5a-c9e7b48e0d70The morning tradition of alms giving that my friend Tony portrayed in his blog post can remind you of Disney world waiting for the parade as tour buses bring in crowds jostling to get a better spot for a picture.  Walk two blocks and you will see grandmothers sweeping the streets and setting out their lone stools to humbly wait to offer small amounts of sticky rice for the monks’ sustenance later in the day.  It is here that you feel a tradition that carries the weight of history and reverence.  It is here you stand silently and appreciate the blessing of being present.

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These experiences have led me to seek out opportunities to step off the tourist track and meet individually with former novices to talk about life in a Wat, take a cooking class with Tony from a local chef to learn how to prepare traditional dishes and volunteer to teach English with students honing their skills.  More on those experiences in my next post.

Sài Gòn and Sensory Overload

Sài Gòn — It is overwhelming  It is exhilarating.  It is life.  And I am loving every moment.

I’m sitting in my room only 72 hours after landing in Sài Gòn.  (Hồ Chí Minh city is the official name but most people we have run into refer to it with the name that I grew up with in newscasts).  It has been a whirlwind.

We hit the ground running despite spending 25 hours in transit.  After our plane landed around 11am local time, we took a couple hours to drop off our bags and shower before heading off on two motorbikes with local guides for a tour of street food in four of Sài Gòn’s districts.  Tony and I will both be blogging on that later but it was the perfect immersion.  We got FAR from typical tourist haunts, tried a wide variety of Vietnamese delicacies and got a real sense of the city.

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It is literally too much to take in – of course nagging exhaustion, tropical heat and jet lag doesn’t help.  For me, however, it is easy to sum up my experience in Sài Gòn – sensory overload.  This is an exceptionally vibrant city filled with contradictions at every turn.  I posted a few images on Instagram of dilapidated housing apartment complexes dating from 1968 and immediately realized that many of the viewers would assume that defines this city.  While I found those scenes of street life stirring, they do not define the city.   No single image and no portrait I try to paint with this blog could.  Just contrast that scene with the vibrant vista of tall modern buildings dazzlingly lit at night.

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I am daunted by trying to convey my experiences.  I am seeing these scenes through a tourist’s eyes that will only have a handful of days to digest and make sense of what we are experiencing.  We go from learning the tricks of making bánh kớt, to talking to a war veteran in a park, to riding on a sắm pan in the Mekong delta to simply walking and walking and walking the streets of this vibrant city.

It is a wonderful cacophony.  The streets are filled with motorbikes and cars that weave and speed through intersections at a pace and with a determination that takes my breath away.  Walking across a street takes willpower, blind faith and a steady pace so that drivers can anticipate your moves and weave around you.

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Life is literally lived on the streets.  “Street food” is typically cooked right on the sidewalk.  You simply pull up a small plastic chair and wait for a piece of culinary heaven as people step around you.  Ground floor apartments and small shops (often they are the same thing) are open to the road and your eyes are inevitably drawn to peer into the small homes and shops where children are playing, grandma is sleeping, and a craftsman is at work.  Privacy is not a concern and many conversations are carried out at a noise level that astounds me.

Right now, I’m sitting in my hotel room at 8am in the morning and music is blaring despite the fact that I’m 10 floors above the street.  Last night the air was filled with the sounds of a major soccer tournament playing on mega-screens in a park, crowds gathered to eat, argue and laugh, and the unveiling of a new movie with excited teens waiting for the stars to make an appearance.   All within ten blocks of our hotel.

It is overwhelming.  It is exhilarating.  It is life.  And I am loving every moment.

Trading Off and On with ToneMan

The first entry on our LONG journey from Washington to Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City on the ToneManblog

As you know, I’m traveling through Vietnam, Laos and Hong Kong with my dear friend Tony.  We’ll each be blogging periodically and here is his first entry on our LONG journey from Washington to Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Minh City.

Wednesday’s Forecast: Complete Darkness All Day!
Strap yourself in for the journey ahead!  It will definitely be an exhilarating adventure but it may get bumpy.

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The Journey Ahead – Vietnam, Laos and Hong Kong

We will soon leave for SE Asia but I do so with trepidation despite extensive preparations. It is hallowed ground that we will walk. Here I provide a list of books, films, podcasts and other resources that I’ve relied upon to prepare for our arrival in Vietnam.

We are now less than a week away before my friend Tony and I leave for our trip to Vietnam, Laos and Hong Kong (see Tony’s post here).  I’ve been scrambling to digest books, documentaries, films, podcasts, World Bank reports, newspaper articles, guidebooks and travel blogs.  Yet, I’ve only scratched the surface.

Why do I feel so unprepared?  In the past, I’ve done my homework and plotted out detailed itineraries for travels to Cambodia, Egypt and Tanzania.  Why is this any different?  My rambles have taught me the value of letting a day unfold at its own pace so I’m less concerned with mapping each day in excruciating detail.  Of course, I have lists of historical sites, great restaurants and food stands, and cultural attractions but these are simply a reference point should our path take us in their direction.

I sense that my unease lies in the gravity tied to the steps ahead.  I was in elementary and the early years of high school during the Vietnam war (or the American War as it is referred to in Vietnam).  Yet those nightly news casts are seared into my memory.  When we tread the ground in Vietnam and Laos, we are standing on land infused with so much death and destruction.

Tony and I just went to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial here in Washington DC to contemplate the 58,318 individual names inscribed on that wall.  We will now be in the land where it is estimated that up to 3.5 million people lost their lives during the war.  And death is a desperately inadequate measure for the pain and destruction.

 

 

Some of you may also know that I’ve served in the past on the board of Legacies of War, an organization dedicated to the clearance of unexploded bombs in Laos.  From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. An estimated 30 percent of the ordnance did not explode on impact, leaving one-third of the land contaminated.  As a result, more than 20,000 people have been killed or injured since the bombings ended.

No wonder I feel the weight of this trip. I know there will be much to celebrate.  The street food is renowned, and we plan to gorge ourselves.  We are also excited to delve into the culture, the religion and the history that extends back centuries.  And, of course, we’ll spend evenings experiencing the night life and racking up a few three bar nights.  But the history of that twenty years of war will never be far.

For those of you who are interested, I’ve listed materials I’ve consumed over the past weeks below.  Please share your suggestions on other books, films and resources that I should track down.  Our visit is only the beginning of my journey.

  • The American War, podcast by the Washington Post (2017)
  • A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, Neil Sheehan
  • City Between Worlds: My Hong Kong, Leo Ou-fan Lee
  • Dispatches, Michael Herr
  • Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, Fredrik Logevall
  • Go Tell the Spartans, Hollywood film (1978)
  • Ho Chi Minh, a biography by William J. Duiker
  • At Home in the World, Thich Nhat Hanh
  • Pete Peterson:  Assignment Hanoi, PBS film (1999)
  • Regret to Inform, a documentary by Barbara Sonnenborn (1998)
  • Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg
  • The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen
  • The Ugly American, Hollywood film (1963)
  • Viet Nam: The Atlantic Philanthropies, Lien Hoang
  • Vietnam: The Next Generation, PBS film (2005)
  • Vietnam Now: A Reporter Returns, David Lamb
  • Vietnam Passage: Journeys from War to Peace, PBS film (2002)
  • Vietnam: Rising Dragon, Bill Hayton
  • The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, a ten-part, 18-hour documentary series on PBS (2017)

The End of 50 States of Rambling??

As I turn a page, it is time to call an end to 50 States of Rambling, Listening, Celebrating and Reflecting.  But fear not — McFramblin: Adventures and musings from a gap year that doesn’t seem to end — is here! 

It is time to call an end to 50 States of Rambling, Listening, Celebrating and Reflecting.  My high school and college years were filled with struggles as my parents grew ill and my mother passed away.  Throughout those days, I desperately wanted to escape – to jump in a car and hit the road.  It took me more than 40 years, but I finally made it.

Starting in October 2017, I crisscrossed our nation several times.  Blueberry, a name for our car bequeathed at one of my first stops by Sadie (the young daughter of my friends Kent and Anastassia), was my trusty steed

Over the course of the year, I was on the road 204 days (with Linda by my side for 84) and covered 39,200 miles in 48 states.

Yes, it is true, I missed Alaska and Washington, but I’ve been to both before and am waiting for an opportunity when our whole family can experience the astounding vistas of the “land of the midnight sun” together.

While 50 States of Rambling may be retired, it is now time to launch – McFramblin: Adventures and musings from a gap year that doesn’t seem to end.  I’ve taken a break from posting as I sift through my experiences and plot the next stage of my life (more on that later).  While I’ve luxuriated in repose in our home in Arlington, I have fit in multiple trips to California, New York, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, a meditation retreat, several conferences, and more dinners, concerts and informational interviews than I can count.  But now, I’m preparing for a major international trip so it is time to rev up the blog.  A new post will appear tomorrow on that front.

I anticipate I’ll be reflecting on my year of rambling throughout most of my life.  I’ve just compiled a short, annotated list of each step of the ramble below.  That exercise filled me with memories and joy.  There is so much I learned about myself on the journey and there were so many fabulous experiences.  I look forward to continuing to share those insights in the posts to come.

Louisiana and Mississippi October 26 – November 2, 2017.

  • Blog Posts. Rambling, Listening, Celebrating and Reflecting in Louisiana and Mississippi
  • Major Stops.  Louisiana: New Orleans for VoodooFest; Cajun Country – Breaux Bridge, Lafayette, Eunice; Mississippi: the delta – Natchez, Rodney, Port Gibson, Vicksburg, Clarksdale, Indianola; Jackson; the Gulf Coast – Ocean Springs, Biloxi, Beauvoir, Gulfport

Arlington to Aspen November 27 – December 18, 2017

Aspen to California  December 19, 2017 – January 2, 2018

Oregon to Spirit Rock January 3 – 15, 2018

California to Florida January 16 – February 8, 2018

  • Blog Posts. My Friends go to Austin and the Hill Country – Why am I in Odessa?, Whose History, Dive Bars, Taking My Breath Away
  • Major Stops. California: San Francisco, Palo Alto, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Joshua Tree National Park, Palm Springs; Arizona: Yuma, Tucson, Kitt Peak National Observatory; New Mexico: Silver City, White Sands National Monument; Texas: El Paso, Marfa, Big Bend National and State Park, Odessa, Lubbock, Amarillo; Oklahoma: Oklahoma City, Tulsa; Arkansas: Bentonville, Cass, Little Rock; Tennessee: Memphis; Alabama: Oxford, Talladega; Georgia: Bethlehem, Macon, Valdosta; Florida: Citrus Springs, Crystal River, Tampa, Clearwater

Florida to Arlington February 8 – 15, 2018

Boston Trip March 22 – 26, 2018

  • Major Stops.  Connecticut: Mystic; New Hampshire: Pelham; Massachusetts: Andover, Cambridge, Boston

Big Island (Hawaii) Trip March 30 – April 9, 2018

  • Blog Post.  The Big Island and Our ‘Ohana
  • Major Stops. Hawaii: Hilo, Akaka Falls State Park, Honoka’a, Waipio Valley, Pololū Valley, Hawi, Waialea Beach, Kamuela, Papakolea Green Sand Beach, Punaluu, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

Tennessee, Alabama and New Orleans Trip April 13 -30, 2018

New England Ramble June 1-24, 2018

  • Blog Posts. Moving Ahead by Stepping Back, Art in Many Forms, Driving Down the New England Coast, An Ode to Small Towns
  • Major Stops.  Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Mifflinville, Lewisburg; New Jersey: Trenton; New York: West Point, New Windsor, Woodstock, Hudson, Fort Ticonderoga, Altamont, Clinton, Watkins Glen, Elmira; Massachusetts: Amherst, North Adams, Williams, Harwich, Provincetown; Vermont: Wallingford, Bennington, Waterbury, Bristol, Warren; New Hampshire: Woodstock, North Conway; Maine: Belfast, Bar Harbor, Acadia National Park, Stonington, Castine, Camden, Ogunquit; Rhode Island: Newport; Connecticut: Gillette Castle State Park, West Hartford

Arlington to Red Rocks to Burning Man July 29 – August 24, 2018

Burning Man to Utah National Parks to Home  August 25 – September 30, 2018

Flesh and Sand

The sand and pebbles ground into my feet but the vastness of the Sonoran Desert in the pre-dawn light was glorious.  As I leisurely scanned the distance, I saw a small cluster of travelers walking toward me.  A moment later I realized I was in the midst of migrants that had crossed the border – a handful of working-age men, a pregnant woman with a child, someone my age that collapsed on the ground rubbing her foot and crying.

Before I could collect my thoughts, a helicopter flew in from over the horizon with an intense spotlight and then two vans screeched to a halt.  Everything changed in an instant.  The sound of the helicopter was deafening but there was no mistaking the orders of the border patrol agents as the dogs bared their teeth and growled and the AR 15s were pointed at us.  You knew to get on your knees with your hands up (if you weren’t scared into running and hiding behind a shrub bush.)  I was shaking.  I wasn’t part of this caravan.  I’m a citizen.

I’m still unsettled.  And it was only a virtual reality (VR) installation.  But it was so chaotic, so visceral, so frightening.  I’ve primarily seen VR in museums where it is employed by avant-garde artists.  This exhibit, Carne y Arena – Flesh and Sand, takes that technology to new levels.  It was created by Academy Award®-winning director Alejandro G. Iñárritu.  In his words:

 During the past five years in which this project has been growing in my mind, I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing many Mexican and Central American refugees. Their life stories haunted me, so I invited some of them to collaborate with me in the project, I’ve experimented with VR technology to explore the human condition in an attempt to break the dictatorship of the frame—within which things are just observed—and claim the space to allow the visitor to go through a direct experience walking in the immigrants’ feet, under their skin, and into their hearts. — Alejandro G. Iñárritu

I hesitate to describe it in more detail, since you need to see it for yourself.  What you experience is dependent on where you walk and how you engage with the people that you meet and the place where you have been transported.

It is more than just technical wizardry.  Each of the three rooms is tailored to open you to embrace the exhibit.  The first room is very cold.  There are lockers on the wall where you are instructed to place your shoes and socks and sit on narrow metal benches until a jarring alarm goes off.  Everything about it removes you from the safe world that you inhabit in your day-to-day life.  I later learned that the room mirrored the experience of those caught on our border.  The first place they are taken is to rooms like this that are named, las hieleras, the freezers.  According to Freedom of Information Act requests, migrants spend nearly two days on average in these forbidding holding rooms.

If the intent is to destabilize you, it worked.  As I walked into the darkened and cavernous room with the sandy and rocky floor to start my VR journey, I was on edge.  After your time in the desert, you collect your shoes and socks and walk into the third room where mute videos of the people that Iñárritu interviewed are displayed.  Portions of their heartbreaking stories scroll across the screens as they stare out at you blinking, swallowing, gazing into your eyes.   No matter where you stand on border security and immigration policy, this is the portion of the experience that truly conveys the humanity, the desperation, the hope and the tragedy.

Proponents of virtual reality approach it with an exuberant ardor.

 It’s  a machine, but through this machine we become more compassionate, we become more empathetic, and we become more connected. And ultimately, we become more human. In other words: We don’t need to read someone else’s mind, we can do one better: become them.  — Chris Milk, documentary filmmaker in 2015 TED Talk

But the experience leaves me questioning.  How do you go beyond an audience composed only of those that are already sympathetic to the subjects or the perspectives you are profiling?  Do participants simply affirm pre-existing narratives and positions or do they revisit their beliefs or are they simply exhausted?  Does it lead to any action?  As I was trying to catch my breath in the post-experience room where you are directed to rest and reflect after leaving the exhibits, there was no engagement on how I might deepen my understanding or contribute or take action.

I’ll be following the growth of VR more intentionally now.  What I do know, is that my legs still quivered an hour afterwards and it has filled many conversations (and now a blog post).  Perhaps I’ve answered some of my own questions.

Continue reading “Flesh and Sand”

Dreams

I had the honor of attending the service of thanksgiving and remembrance for Matthew Wayne Shepard yesterday.  I reflected on Matt’s dreams as passages from his journal were read.  It also inspired me to reflect on my travels over the past year and my own dreams. Now that I am home, I am sifting through my experiences and contemplating various options for my next adventure. One thing that calls to me is the need to reflect further on how we can best bear witness to our history and to create welcoming spaces and vehicles for reflection and learning. I’d appreciate your advice, connections and inspiration on that journey.

Gently rest in this place, you are safe and, Matt, welcome home!

Bishop Gene Robinson

I had the honor of attending the service of thanksgiving and remembrance for Matthew Wayne Shepard at the Washington National Cathedral yesterday.  It was particularly touching in light of my recent visit to Laramie Wyoming, the site where Matt was brutally murdered.

It took twenty years for the family to settle on a resting place for his ashes.  They feared protests and desecration and that was understandable.  Matthew became a symbol and a lightening rod.  His father had to wear a bullet-proof vest under his suit at Matt’s funeral as protestors hurled hate at those attending the service.   When the owner of the Pulse nightclub in Orlando expressed surprise that there was no memorial for Matthew in Wyoming, Judy Shepard responded — “you don’t understand, Orlando embraced you. Wyoming did not embrace us.”

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Matthew was embraced yesterday.  The service was attended by thousands.  For those of you that have not been to the cathedral, it is glorious.  Its nave was filled with moving and joyous music, inspiring remembrances and tributes, scriptural readings and impassioned calls to action.  Most of all the cathedral was filled with love.  There was simply a mother and father with tears in their eyes and a community that gathered in remembrance of this ordinary boy and a life cut so tragically short.

I reflected on Matt’s dreams as passages from his journal were read.  I reflected on what has been accomplished in his name.  The tragedy is still a tragedy.  The gains that have been inspired by this heinous killing do not counterbalance the loss – the years of joys and struggles, the love and loss, the life he deserved.

It also inspired me to reflect on my travels over the past year and my own dreams. While I did not set out with any mission other than to let the road unfold, I have returned again and again to the tragedies in our nation’s history.  I have been called to witness.  Some of this has been covered in blog posts:

Other stops reside only in my personal notes and memories but are no less powerful – a sunny afternoon sitting by a marker on the small Roubidoux river in Missouri where Native Americans took respite for a night while on the Trail of Tears.

Now that I am home, I am sifting through my experiences over the past year and over my lifetime.  I pick up and contemplate various options for my next adventure from a shift to social work to executive coaching to a new run at public policy and electoral reform to further exploration of mindfulness and meditation.

But the one thing that calls to me is the need to reflect further on how we can best bear witness to our history, to create welcoming spaces and vehicles for reflection and learning, to build bridges and to grow individually and as a nation.

I’d appreciate your advice, connections and inspiration on that journey.