One Nation. Under God.

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American flag on display in a museum in Belgium. A battle-scarred Tiger tank sits outside in ruins.

I returned to the USA from my missionary work in Spain a week ago. I had a few detours along The Way which I never expected but God never let go of my hand. This Independence Day means more to me than any other.

I helped serve pilgrims with a team of people on El Camino de Santiago’s Camino Frances. A 1200-year old, 500-mile pilgrimage to the tomb of St. James (Santiago), one of Jesus’ disciples. As we prepared for our ministry in Spain, our advisors suggested meeting people where they are on their walk of faith. I believe this wise practice for ministry is also a great way to meet people in life. Simple in concept but difficult in practice.

One day this practice meant finding a “zapatero,” or cobbler, to fix a pilgrim’s pair of shoes. Another day we provided pilgrims with hot tea and carrot cake or hummus and vegetables. On another we helped a paralytic pilgrim find shelter in our ancient village where he was told there was no room at any inn. A few days later we shared our testimonies with a double-lung transplant recipient. Many of these conversations took place in my second language of Castellano and rarely in my very poor French– the later took place in both.

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From my final Camino in Spain this summer

WHAT SURPRISED ME

Pilgrims and the townspeople wanted to know my story. They wanted to know what lead me to work there and why. How I came to know The Lord. So many times the other American working there and I fielded questions about American presidential politics and gun violence. Frequently during these discussions, pilgrims shared titles of books they’d read that influenced their lives––spiritual books, adventure stories, thought-provoking essays, and whatever books they had in their backpack.

Books are a real luxury item when hiking 500-miles across Spain. Pilgrims are advised to only carry 10% of their body weight. You can image how difficult it is to put that into practice. Especially when you’re like me, who packs just about everything (read: writer). If you want to check out what I took with me on my Camino last summer you can see a short video here. My “mochilla,” backpack, weighed more than the 13 lbs. it should have, way more. This made my Camino much harder than it needed to be and took a toll on my body (doctor-ordered rest for two days) and spirit. I discovered I had to get rid of things by donating them to others along The Way. Lightening my load, another wise way to live life. Another simple but difficult practice.

What does lightening my load look like for me today? Holding things up one at a time in my decidedly less cluttered storage unit to see what more I can let go of. What can you do today to lighten your load? Physically? Spiritually?

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I met lots of people who had heavy spiritual loads. People at a crossroads. Trying to make peace with God. Trying to find God. Trying to answer life’s biggest questions. Trying to run away from everyone and everything, including God. Some who sought to harm me. People who had never heard the name of Jesus. And when people wanted to know Him better, one of the first questions they had concerned my church affiliation. I replied non-denominational and that I only hoped to have a real, personal relationship with Jesus.

WHY PEOPLE ABANDON THEIR FAITH

In my conversations about faith this Spring and Summer in Spain, I discovered two things that caused people to abandon their faith––hypocrisy, and the inability to fully understand the concept of God’s grace. People told me they abandoned their faith when a hypocrite in their life caused them to suffer, sometimes within their church family. Usually this pain happened at a young age, a difficult time to try understand our fallen world. A great sermon to listen to if you struggle with this wound is here.

I often heard people saying all the world religions are the same. They talked about how every world religion speaks of loving-kindness and doing good works. But grace is uniquely Christian. It is a gift freely given. You don’t have to do any good work. The minute you put your faith in Jesus as your Savior, a perfect sacrifice that died for your sins, is the minute you are forgiven. Jesus is enough. That means that you don’t have to carry 20 lbs. in your mochilla anymore. God’s got you. You don’t have to feel the guilt, pain, doubt, or shame. You can let it all go. You are good enough.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” Proverbs 3:5

How do I put this proverb into practice today? I say a prayer for the Lord to watch over and guide someone I love. I trust that the words that I am inspired to write and say matter. That they’re important. I pray to have peace, patience and self-control as the Lord reveals His will for my life. How might you trust in the Lord today?

COURAGE

On this Independence Day, a time Americans remember what courage it took to stand up to tyranny, to fight it and then create a future as one nation, under God, it is my prayer that today you may find yourself one step closer to living and loving like Jesus in your own life. Free to meet the people in your life where they are, wherever they are, be it serving them carrot cake, asking a friend to a picnic, saying yes, speaking a difficult truth, telling a joke, sharing your testimony, learning a language, making friends in far away places, forgiving, or digging deep into your well of patience to understand, one more time, again. Lighten your mochilla. Accept grace and let your light shine no matter who or what in your life has tried to dim it. We were not created to only survive. We were created to thrive.

Happy 4th of July. May the fireworks of your life far exceed the beauty of those in tonight’s sky.

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“Lo fácil ya lo hice,

lo difícil lo estoy haciendo…

y lo imposible me tardaré,

pero lo lograré,

con la ayuda de Dios.”

“The easy I have done,

the difficult I am doing,

the impossible takes a while,

but I will succeed,

with the help of God.”

El Señor & Seville, Spain–learning to trust and obey

It is the beginning of the fourth week of Easter and the beginning of my fourth week in Spain. In the months leading up to my trip, a dear Camino friend from Brazil had asked me to meet her in Seville before I was due to serve pilgrims on El Camino de Santiago in Viana at a place called The Pilgrims’ Oasis, also known as The Chill Café, a sort of living room for pilgrims in need of relaxation, a beer, tea or coffee and a place of peace where they can discuss spiritual questions and things that are important to them. I said yes.

Pulpo (Octopus) one of the foods that helped me walk across Spain
Pulpo (Octopus) one of the foods that helped me walk across Spain

We were very excited to catch up post-Camino, hear about each other’s lives, eat lots of Pulpo and drink Rioja. In the flurry of activity that included storing all my worldly possessions and heading out into the world again, I once again (see this post) forgot about Easter.

Tatianna and me sharing Rioja & Pulpo
Tatianna and me sharing Rioja & Pulpo

This trip nearly didn’t happen. So much had occurred to convince me to stay in the U.S., that traveling to Spain under the circumstances was impossible––irresponsible even––this added to my lack of concern and preparation for the first leg of my time in Spain. My friend Tatianna sent me messages saying things like Semana Santa is a “big deal” in Seville. Semana Santa rung a bell somewhere, but not a very loud one. “Que paso es que la ciudad tiene un tradición muy antigua de fiesta en semana santa y por eso la ciudad está bastane llena.” Which is to say that the city has an ancient festival tradition and because of this the city was rather full of people. Sensing how ill-prepared I was for the journey, Tatianna got a room for me at her place, a school where she was studying Spanish in the center of the city. She said we could share a room if needs be. Grateful, but still clueless, I figured Seville was a big “Spring Break” town for Spaniards.

The chocolate Easter bunny I received on my Lufthansa to Frankfurt.
The chocolate Easter bunny I received on my Lufthansa flight from LA to Frankfurt.

Other than Easter in Nepal, my Easter celebrations involved making big meals for family, attending church, and contemplating that Jesus died for me. My celebrations revolved around Easter eggs, picnics and seeing wildflowers in bloom. Some years it included Spring Break trips, laying on beaches and basking in the season of new life and wonder. But as El Señor (Español for God) and I have been on a year of adventure (I’m guessing it might be more like a lifetime now), He’d take me by the hand into one of the world’s largest, breathtaking ancient Easter celebrations.

Exhausted, the whole process of leaving LA was riddled with long delays. I asked El Señor what he wanted to teach me in all the waiting. Almost immediately he gave me a reply…

What answered prayer looked like
What answered prayer looks like

The day before I left, while sitting at a stop sign the black Cadillac in front of me with dark tinted windows had a black California license plate with “PSALM20,” written in gold letters. On my drive to the airport a gold sign fastened to a freeway overpass read “ASK JESUS FOR MERCY,” in black letters. I immediately did and thanked El Señor for color coding his messages and placing them front-and-center the way He had. I humbly thanked Him for the ability to make the journey. If I paid attention, El Señor was everywhere and apparently enjoyed giving me messages in black and gold, the colors of my sorority and the colors of my childrens’ high school. And, because He is equally playful and efficient, He made the most of my time in LA traffic.

"I know who I am and who I may be, if I choose." - Don Quixote
“I know who I am and who I may be, if I choose.” – Don Quixote

Nothing is more important to me than to trust and obey El Señor. And yet I find it so difficult in practice. On good days, following His call feels exactly right and I am at peace. But on the difficult days––and there were many before I left California––His call seemed self-indulgent, irresponsible, and even flighty. These lies nearly kept me from boarding the plane. After take off I read my copy of Don Quixote, a classic story about an idealist heading out into the world. On the 400th anniversary of Cervantes death it seemed like perfect reading, even as it weighed in at 920 pages. One day I hope to read it in Spanish.

I figured I’d catch a train to Seville. No big deal. I’d been a pilgrim. I was good at last minute travel. Then I got the WhatsApp message in Frankfurt…

On my layover in Frankfort...
On my layover in Frankfort…

“Watch out” because the trains could be full. Tatianna suggested if I had time at the airport in Frankfurt that I check the available tickets from Madrid to Seville. A quick search found every train ticket to Seville sold out. The buses weren’t running. After calling a few rental agencies I reserved a car. I flew into a very cold and overcast Madrid and as I stepped into the rental car for a God-knows-how-long drive to Seville after a nearly 24-hour trip to Spain by plane, I guess I should have been daunted when Google Maps navigated the five hour trip. Instead, I couldn’t wait to drive through storied Andalucia to Seville. With no traffic at all, I passed cities I’d only seen in movies or read about––Toledo, Trujillo, Mérida on the Camino de Plata (Silver), all bathed in tangerines, pinks and purples of the setting sun. El Señor indeed had mercy on me and provided for me in amazing ways. Again. Still, on the drive down I wondered…why Seville? I had only been called there on the spur of the moment as my plans had changed at the last minute. What was there that El Señor was calling me to?

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The exhilaration of driving through Seville’s ancient city walls with Siri guiding me through crowds of impeccably dressed faithful contracting its already narrow, cobblestone streets. After pulling into the perfect parking spot, I met Tatianna on foot at the front door of my home for the holiday, Enforex housing for students studying the Spanish language (enforex.com). My hosts let me bunk with them for free when they found out I’d be serving pilgrims on El Camino––another of El Señor’s great provisions. It was no coincidence that I drove into ground zero for the Easter celebration and even less of a coincidence that after lots of catching up over pulpo & Rioja, Tatianna and I met one of Sevilla’s ancient processions on the most mundane of errands––getting my suitcase out of my car.

I couldn’t help but think how I would never see this type of pageantry to celebrate the life of Christ in America. Where I’ve had to be careful wishing people Merry Christmas, and often times default to a “Happy Holiday” greeting so as not to offend. In the country where “In God We Trust” is written on every coin and every dollar bill. There is much work to be done for El Señor in Spain, that is certain. But this beautiful moment of worship gave me perspective on the things I’ve settled for in my faith and where I hope to take it. Will you join me?

PSALM 20:

1May the Lord answer you when you are in distress;

may the name of the God of Jacob protect you.

2May he send you help from the sanctuary

and grant you support from Zion.

3May he remember all your sacrifices

and accept your burnt offerings.

4May he give you the desire of your heart

and make all your plans succeed.

5May we shout for joy over your victory

and lift up our banners in the name of our God.

May the Lord grant all your requests.

6Now this I know:

The Lord gives victory to his anointed.

He answers him from his heavenly sanctuary

with the victorious power of his right hand.

7Some trust in chariots and some in horses,

but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

8They are brought to their knees and fall,

but we rise up and stand firm.

9Lord, give victory to the king!

Answer us when we call!

A pilgrim in Paris (una peregrina en Paris)

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I soared above Santiago. Over The Bay of Biscay I spotted the Camino del Norte.

My heart began to understand what it meant to have walked across the entire fiesta-filled, rioja-swilling, bagpipe-playing, country of my literary idols where ancient wars had been won and lost, and a biblical amount of Syrian and African refugees sought safety to cries of Catalonian independence.

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I said a silent prayer for peace, for the welfare of the refugees and pelegrinas below and gave thanks to El Señor for the last metaphor of The Camino and the privilege of completing my pilgrimage.

A bittersweet adíos to the country that had been my home for over a month. I’d sold almost everything and stored the rest before traveling the world with El Señor in July. Home is and will continue to be where my heart and mochilla (backpack) are.

The early morning cab ride from Fisterra to the Santiago Airport found my body restless, wondering with every twitch why it wasn’t walking.

I’d ride in a taxi, plane, train and three metro lines before the short walk to my apartment in Monmartre. My body hardly knew what happened.

Paris was cold. Very cold. Tan and sporting a hiking skirt, I walked onto my train at Charles De Gaulle and rode to Garre del Nord to take the metro to Garre Leon. My feet bruised and bandaged, not for the likes of Parisian eyes–wild “lion” hair, no makeup, a mochilla and walking sticks completed my look. Rain pelted the windows of the train. Lightning strikes across a darkened Parisian skyline tracked the train.

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I was very tired with a big plan––to visit the Louvre for thirty days and write about it. Great art of the world would be my classroom.

El Señor had something to teach me. I had no idea what but was open and ready to learn. I totally surrendered to Him. To prepare for this part of my walk with The Lord I studied French with a tutor in Los Angeles. Problem was, by the time I’d arrived in Paris I’d been thinking, speaking and dreaming in Spanish for over a month. The best I could do was to think in French and speak in Spanish. A beautiful young lady that hardly spoke English gave me the keys to my apartment and helped me with where I might find stores to buy warm clothes and which metro lines to take.

There were a few things I needed to figure out right away.

How to make the shower work. How to turn the sofa into a bed. I would need so much help with this that the owner of the apartment sent me a youtube video. Valerie, a nice young man–go figure, I expected a woman too…ah, Paris–who lived upstairs, checked in on me to make sure I wouldn’t have to sleep on the sofa again for another night due to my serious lack of sofa conversion skills. I needed to sit in a café and drink champagne and write in my journal. Buy some warm clothes. Stop speaking Spanish to Parisians. And, I needed to figure out the best way to The Louvre. I needed to rest. A lot. More than a lot. Spanish took over the language of my dreams.

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The following day I woke up at 10 AM, bone-tired. Much too late for a peregrina. My sofa bed a magnet.

I couldn’t wrap my head around walking or taking the metro to The Louvre. It was all I could do to shower in a space so small I barely had room to turn around. No longer sleeping among an army of people in bunk beds, I found the solitude welcome but strange. I stumbled to the velvet curtains and opened the french windows. Peering out of the window into the courtyard and up seven stories, a sunny sky surprised. A nearly-dead geranium sat in the iron grillwork of the window box. I cradled the plant and watered it using my Finsterra shot glass.

In one plane ride life had changed from hand-washing clothes and sleeping in hammocks to daily metro rides, friends, family, coded locks, losing myself among Renoir’s streets and cafes, and the taste of rose marshmallows–a new pleasure.

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Showering led to walking which led to finding the perfect store to buy coffee for the next morning which led to strolling by a sculpting studio.

Beautiful female bodies frozen in rapture, others seated and stared into the unknown. They captivated me. Red coffee pots in a storefront reminded me of Lucy who I met the first day of The Camino and is now a life-long friend, mi hermana. I instantly wanted to buy a coffee grinder. Soon I walked the streets by Sacre Coeur. Men asked permission to draw my portrait as accordions and clarinets played.

 

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I ordered champagne and onion soup in a small café and picked up my pen.

“I can’t help but wonder how The Camino will shape my life. A greater sense of peace and confidence has been among The Lord’s great gifts. I am exhausted and my body needs to be still now, even as it glorified in the joy of walking. Moving forward. Ultreia (“Onward,” an ancient Latin pilgrim greeting). A joy I’ve always had and will God-willing never lose. I know the Lord has brought me to Paris for a reason and begin to feel He is preparing me for something big. I am open to all of it.” How wonderful walk in Montmartre, drink champagne and write in my journal.

A young Russian woman with red hair and raincoat to match shared that her husband was meeting her for a weekend in the city of love. 

The young couple next to me ordered a half bottle of rosé and sealed their first drink with a kiss. Young love so beautiful. Babies pass by in strollers. Sweet memories of my family. Touring Paris eleven years ago.

I meandered the streets that lead to Sacre Coeur and pass small snail sculptures. Inside a charming store I bought the perfect snail in Camino yellow and two coffee mugs. I want my own mugs for my daughter’s visit. The snail honored something very special my dear friend and fellow pilgrim Tatianna and I discovered, our own pace.

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“I’m still on The Way, following the signs. Before I had the challenge of crossing a country with its mountains and valleys. I now have the challenge of knowing an historic city with all of its people and rich artistic heritage. It occurs to me that the mountains and valleys of a city are perhaps more difficult to navigate. Sitting here in this café getting perhaps a little drunk this afternoon is a good introduction to Paris. A day of splurging. Splurging and sunshine and getting to know the terrain. Different than the mountains of Spain but similar too. It’s the beginning of another great adventure and I thank God for it.”

Banners draped over the front of Sacre Coeur read—“For over 125 years HERE NIGHT AND DAY someone is praying to the Lord.” Over a century of 24/7 continual prayer. I stare deeply into the eyes of my favorite statue of Mary. Of course my journey in Paris would begin here.

The newness of Sacre Coeur spoke to the comfort of the ancient ways I’d been wearing.

And it unsettled me. I enjoyed pilgrim life and had a hard time saying goodbye. Standing at the veranda below Sacre Coeur I looked out over Paris and wondered where this next adventure would lead.

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A Dios, the meaning of life and the miracle chicken

 

Pilgrim life in an albergue in Santo Domingo de Calzada
Pilgrim life in an albergue in Santo Domingo de Calzada

NOTE: This post is from last week.  I had a few set backs with WIFI, etc… this week’s post is coming soon….

Written 8/17/15

Walking the camino for fourteen days has taken a toll on our bodies. Some have been camino-ending. Fortunately I’ve only had to deal with a bout of exhaustion and seemingly never-ending blisters. There’s a rhythm to life now. Walking between 20 to 26 km/day is typical. The longest walk was 33 km and lead to me having to back off a day and only walk 10 km. I’m learning what my body can handle. It is profound that one of the lessons of the camino is knowing your own body. Feeling every inch of it. Listening to my body’s wants and needs and praying for God’s protection and strength is the only way to Santiago. When I arrived in Burgos there was a change in my experience. People I knew and people I didn’t were ending their camino.

“The group is nice but it’s always been an individual thing.” a young man says to another.

“We’ve spent two weeks together and flew in on the same flight to St. Jean Pied de Port.”

“Stay in touch. I have to send email. I’ll help you. Maybe the people I know can help you.”

As I begin to fall asleep, on the bunk next to mine, a girl gushes to her friend about how “he” scrawled his name and number on a Euro. She cries a little hoping he will come to Munich to see her. She speaks with a friend about what is good and being strong and about the tears they cry. The lights go out in the albergue. There’s a final hug. One camino ends here, one continues. Snoring rises and falls.

And I know now, unlike I never knew before that the camino will mean so much more in its afterglow. The camino, like so many parts of my life, can be easy to take for granted. Much of it is snap shots. A special place in time where our openness meets the kindness of strangers and we become more than we were before. The pilgrim bond is strong and we have the privilege of learning from each other. People I know so well, I may never see again come tomorrow. And then there is The Way. The reason we are all here. The step-by-step discovery of ourselves and our world, today.

I’ve met a great lady who works for the UN in Jordan and she’s helped me with tips on finding work in the humanitarian field. She’s burned out after nine years of working in the Middle East. We talk about why and what lead her to the camino–a common question among pilgrims.

Soon I will be hiking across the Maseta. Tanja, a German woman, warned me that unless I had someone to hike with who could talk about God and the meaning of life the Maseta goes on forever. No water for kilometers. No shade. I begin to think how I will do when I cross it. Who I might cross it with and what I think about the meaning of life.

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After typing the last sentence, I realize how funny that must sound to people off the camino. I mean how much time does the average person really spend pondering the meaning of life? What it means to them, what they want their life to be? Who has time, right? And it sounds so incredibly serious. But it’s really a light-hearted question. One that I found the most glorious comfort in as I climbed into my bunk in my beautiful albergue in Santo Domingo de Calzada on the Feast Day of the Assumption of Mary where we celebrated mass in the cathedral in town, along with some sacred hens and a rooster. The holy cage is entombed in the wall of the cathedral because of a miracle that occurred in the little village that involved unrequited love, a hanging boy who didn’t die and a chicken dinner that came back to life.


Holy hen and rooster cage in the cathedral of Santo Domingo De Calzada
Holy hen and rooster cage in the cathedral of Santo Domingo De Calzada
Amazing pastries made in the image of hens to honor the miracle of the pueblo
Amazing pastries made in the image of hens to honor the miracle of the pueblo

Legend says that if a pilgrim hears a call of the chicken or the rooster during mass that their camino will be a happy one. I heard a hen at the beautiful service. I am beginning to think that no one can put on a mass like the Spanish. This mass did not include the typical pilgrim blessing as all the other masses I attended as it was a high holy day. This might help you to understand when such things happen almost daily the meaning of life can cross my mind. But it was much later after I settled into my bunk when the real miracle happened for me. From about midnight––for an entire hour––the church bells of the cathedral rang, which was only blocks away from my albergue. They rang unlike any bells I’ve ever heard before and I doubt I will hear again. A symphony of bells so beautiful it seemed the song of the angels. And that’s when I thanked God for revealing the meaning of life in His hilarious, glorious way on The Way during my Buen Camino.

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Ultimate Dream Dinner — Phuket, Thailand

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The most important ingredient in my ultimate dining experience? Dreams.

The kind people at smartling.com asked if I could have or make dinner anywhere in the world, where would it be and what would I eat?

My dream dinner abroad finds me cooking in an open-air kitchen on the shores of the Andaman Sea in Phuket, Thailand.

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For me, dreams and dinners-of-a-lifetime are made up of exotic surprises. It was a surprise to meet my younger daughter in Phuket. Since we only had a few days together we met between Vietnam–where she’d traveled for work–and Nepal–where I’d volunteered for dental relief. An early Mother’s Day present, our day of cooking at The Phuket Thai Cookery School started at the local market with a charming guide who showed us how they make the freshest coconut milk and how to pick ingredients for our dinner.

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Back at the school, after a few demos by the hilarious staff, we were let loose in their open-air kitchens to recreate the traditional Thai recipes they’d demonstrated. Our cooking areas had a view of the sea with all of our ingredients measured out for us–a cook’s dream. The best cooking tip I received there has become a tradition in my own cooking ever since. When squeezing the juice out of a lime (or lemon) squeeze it around the blade of a knife and the juice flows down the blade beautifully.

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On the menu:

Tom Kha Kai (Chicken in Coconut Milk Soup)

Kaeng Kiew Wan Kai (Green Curry with Chicken)

Phad Thai (Thai Fried Noodles with Prawns)

Som Tam (Papaya Salad)

Khao Niew Mamuang (Mango with Sticky Rice)

The food seemed to flavor our passions and had all the best ingredients: Thailand, a reunion with my daughter and the intoxicating aromas found only among mixtures of kaffir limes, lemongrass, curries, the freshest of seafood, and mangoes. Cooking in the open air kitchen and eating the five-course meal seaside in conversation with new friends blessed me with fulfilling a dream.

Once upon a time, cooking was a big part of my life. We’d have the family over for Easter. I’d cook a rack of lamb for a few dozen people. Housewarmings featured Indonesian rijsttafel (rice table)–a family tradition. But when life as I knew it took a turn I didn’t expect, I lost the joy of cooking which left me unable to even enter a grocery store. My daughter knew this. Wise beyond her years, she sent me back into the kitchen. Lovingly. For Mother’s Day. In Thailand. My daughter and I set a few of our dreams in motion over Tom Kha Kai, our favorite course. I raised my chopsticks full of Phad Thai and looked to the Andaman sea, giving thanks for this time together, an exotic, delicious surprise.

Bali’s Nyepi & the power of silence : 90 spontaneous, inspirational days around the world

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I first learned about Nyepi while touring around Ubud last year. As I motored though village after village, I spotted boys and teenagers constructing huge demons that rivaled any Hollywood creation. I began to film what captivated me.

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Each village funded the construction of demons, called Oguh-oguh monsters. I mean, is there anything better to most boys than making larger-than-life demons? It was like they took the doodles off their school papers and gave them life. The Oguh-oguh monsters represent Bhuta Kala, malicious spirits that inhabit Bali on Nyepi to turn people toward evil. In days gone by, night was considered the time for supernatural beings. Malignant spirits, bhuta kala, and witches filled the darkness of the night. Older Balinese see the night as a dangerous time for traveling outside the house compound, though gamelan is held in the evening but it never lasts until late at night on Bali like it does on Java. Even to this day, my Balinese friends told me that I will not see a Balinese family out with their young children at twilight. They see twilight as the time when evil spirits can take control over people’s lives.

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The designs of the Oguh-oguh spoke to their creators’ incredible imaginations and their craftsmanship spoke to how seriously villagers take their monsters. Most were big-breasted ghouls with fangs, some with blue skin, some with very long hair and nails. It was surreal motoring the streets of Ubud, passing demon after demon after demon in varying states of construction. Seeing their creative process was as fascinating to me as seeing the finished creatures parade down the streets of Ubud on Nyepi. The actual day of Nyepi is determined by when the “Tilem Kesanga” falls, the darkest moon.

I had taken a trip to Gili Air to go remote for the weekend right before Nyepi. I just couldn’t wait for the silence, I guess. Gili Air gave a great respite from the frenzy of Java and bustle of Bali as there are no mobiles or motors there. I traveled by horse-drawn carriage when I wasn’t walking. In fact, I could walk around the tiny island in under an hour. When I returned to Bali to celebrate Nyepi, all the tourists were crowded on the docks of Bali ready to party on the Gilis instead of getting “trapped in the silence” of Nyepi. I happily sailed the nearly empty boat back to Bali. I wanted silence. I needed silence. On the eve of Nyepi, Bali was anything but.

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Gamelan and clanging filled the air. The Oguh-oguh monsters, great ghouls, paraded down the streets of Ubud while hundreds lined the streets watching the fan fare. All along the parade route, beautiful sarong-wrapped girls carrying torches kept a vigil with pieces of tape placed over their mouths. Some of the passing demons had dozens of boys animating them, holding large bamboo platforms. They raised the Oguh-Oguh up and down battling other demons in the parade. Since it’s believed village crossroads are where evil spirits linger, the boys spin the Oguh-Oguh monsters counter-clockwise to confuse the evil spirits. People bang pots and pans, cans, and honk horns to force the evil spirits to leave. Later the effigies are burnt in cemeteries as a symbol of purification. Cock fighting is permitted on the eve of Nyepi, because the spilling of blood is necessary for purification.

And then, Bali went dark and quiet. The moment otherworldly.

3/31/2014 – Pondock Pundi Village Inn

I’m not supposed to be outside, but I have to look at the stars. While I stare at the kind of darkened sky most people will never see in this light-filled world, the silence bathes me. It’s more than a moment of “unplugging,” it’s freeing. Nothing needs to be done or thought about or planned for in the next twenty-four hours. Outside my door meat and alcohol offerings are left in the streets for the evil spirits to feed on in the hopes that they will pass deserted Bali by. 

When I reached The Pondock Pundi Village Inn earlier this afternoon—only a few inns were open for tourists as most left Bali for Nyepi—I was asked for my meal preferences for the entire next day. It was explained to me that I was to return to the Inn before midnight and afterwards I was not to go outside. I was not to use the electricity. The staff would bring my meals to me. I was to observe the four abstinences:

“amati geni” no lighting fires or using lights

“amati karya” refraining from working

“amati lelanguan” refraining from indulging in leisure activities

“amati lelungan” refraining from traveling outside the house

Bali hopes that in the silence all the evil spirits will fly over their island. As they sit inside, they reflect on how to purify their minds and their bodies with yoga and meditation. My experience of Neypi is life-changing. Never have I spent a twenty-four hour period in silence. Those that know me would be laughing right about now. It’s the perfect time to reflect on where I’ve been and where I’m headed. 

90 Spontaneous Days Around The World : The Zen of the dark

Everyone needs their own torch…

Where I was when I decided to ditch the plan and got it alone...
Here, while snorkeling in Pulau Menjangan, I decided to ditch the plan and go it alone…

Late on my last night in Joga I realized I’d forgotten to pack a flashlight. When my friend Rinto found out, he insisted he take me to a store close by so I’d have one for the next morning’s pre-dawn climb to the summit of Bromo, I’d need one for the climb of Batur too. I figured I could get by without buying one. I had so many friends, I could just walk with them. But Rinto looked me in the eye and said I needed my own torch. That’s what he called it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve relied on that torch. How often I silently thank him for insisting. I’ll never call a flashlight a flashlight again. A torch is truly what I needed in my life at that time. Something a bit more primal than a flashlight, with a name that spoke to survival.

Everyone needs their own torch when the darkness overwhelms. A person can’t rely on another’s torch to help. This awareness was one of the best gifts Rinto had given me. He understood me better than anyone I’d met on the trip so far. Orphaned at eleven, he knew the pain of losing the people he loved. He knew what it was like to begin again. I was just learning.

That night we motored through the streets of JoJa, which at times felt like a life-and-death experience. There were swarms of motors (mortorbikes) and few mobiles (cars) winding around even more crowded streets than usual because of a concert at the Sultan’s palace. We picked out a small torch and he made me promise to never go without it. To always keep it near. In the countless times I’ve needed it, especially in unexpected times, I smile. He helped me see me in a new way. This was the beginning of discovering my light within.

In the rebuilding of my life, I never seem to be satisfied with the little bit of the path that the torch lights up. I always want to see more, more than a torch can show me. I become impatient and a bit unsatisfied with what I can see with just my torch at times. What I would learn as the trip continued is the real blessing of the peace that comes when I trust the light will take me where I need to go. To surrender to it. To trust it. This was seemingly impossible for me as the ability to trust was something I had lost. I would have to learn to trust myself.

After the ride and the torch and the concert, Rinto and I said goodbye. I left the next morning.

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The first act of faith of going it alone would be handing a payment and my passport over to the visa extension office in Ubud and trusting them.

“Come back next Friday at 5 PM,” the visa extension business owner said matter-of-factly.

Uh, ok.

This was one of those times where instead of a torch I wanted to light a bonfire and see if what I’d just done was the best decision of my life, or the worst. Most are somewhere in between.

Because of the time it took for the visa extension to process–they had to send all the extensions through Jakarta–I found myself in Ubud for a week. A beautiful place to be “stuck.” There was a reason I was there, although I didn’t know it at the time. I’d never travelled like this before—alone, with no plan. I was just getting used to being alone in my own life after having someone beside me for nearly thirty years. I needed to trust that I was right where I needed to be. This would take courage and become the adventure of my life.

The first part of that adventure would be to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Ubud because nothing says St. Patrick’s Day like a green Bintang at the Laughing Buddha Bar.

90 Spontaneous Days Around The World : When we believe the best about ourselves

Mt. Bromo Summit
Mt. Bromo Summit

March 6, 2014

I’ve heard about Bali my whole life and it seemed like an exotic place only other people would visit. But today, I’m going to set foot there. There were a million reasons to not go. To stay stuck in fear. To pull back, especially in the face of so much pain and uncertainty— but I didn’t. I chose to Go Big, and this is my new philosophy. My new North Star. I’ve decided I don’t want to live my life as I always have. I want to live differently. I’m not completely certain what this will look like. I’ve decided I’d like to travel and write and work incredibly hard to support myself with my pen (camera and computer too). 

I would find that the real magic in my life lies in an elegant truth. An elegant truth it would take a trip around the world to discover.

Java, this ancient place of mystery and history, the island where my dad was born, the island where he fought for his survival during WWII, transformed me and my pain.

 volcano

GOING BIG 

Calls of “hello” 

Big smiles

Swimming in holy water

Offerings to volcano cauldrons

Beautiful simplicity

24/7 people in crowded squares

Life, life, life

Manic driving and motors

4:30 AM calls to prayer

Jungle shrieks and hums

I will miss it all

Everything

The bike ride with Hannah, Tim and Peter

through the nighttime streets of Pandangaran

Volleyball, 2 AM feasts

Clove cigarettes

Perfect strangers

helping, caring

Kites catching

flying foxes for dinner

Markets and the mystical

A witch’s spell cast

A holy tree wrapped

The spirit world

A heartbeat away

Waiting to be felt

Waiting to speak 

Listen

Living with duplicity

the black and the white

the left hand and the right

good and evil

all have a place

here,

finding a balance

A great harvest ahead

Without fear

Without pain

Secure

in the joy

that comes from

GOING BIG

Rice harvest March, 2014 Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Rice harvest March, 2014 Yogyakarta, Indonesia

It’s my last few hours on Java and I’ll take it home with me. Whenever I feel unclear or uncertain, I’ll bring the harvest in the palm-tree fringed rice paddies to mind, trusting a rich harvest is ahead.

balinesedancer

I take the ferry from Java to Bali today. My dear Indonesian friend warned me about the ferries. “They sink a lot of the time. Go to Bali another way,” she said. I prayed extra-hard on the crossing, so breathtakingly beautiful I can’t imagine arriving on Bali any other way.

The Hindu temples here have monuments at their entrances in the shape of hands in prayer. As you walk through, they bless you and as you leave they wish you well.

I went to the gardens of good and evil at the Goa Gajah temple in Ubud. I was kind of shocked how they acknowledge the evil spirits in this way, so different than the West. 

My guide, Ketut, told me that there was a small school in the Elephant Cave at the temple here. Once upon a time, the King taught boys there about religion and philosophy. Ketut mentioned that the students were instructed in controlling their emotions because it is the only thing a person can control. He said that when there is a problem, that the problem always lies inside you, never inside another person. The the only two things a person should pray for from God, according to Ketut, is health and harmony in the family. When life is out of balance then there is a problem.

The paper I picked up on Bali
The paper I picked up on Bali

Word of the disappearing Malaysian Airlines plane shocked the world, and Indonesia was in the spotlight for the search and rescue effort. As countries scoured the Java Sea for the missing plane, relatives contacted me and my fellow traveling friends to ask about our welfare.

Was our next flight a Malaysian airlines flight? It’s hard to put into words what it’s like to go through such a global event at the heart of the event itself.

Of course I think about how short life really is. And how small the world really is. And how if we could just wrap our arms around each other more, we would weep less. That it’s ok to be afraid of the unknown, even when the world asks the question about how the impossible can happen. It’s okay not to have any of the answers you want and need when you want and need them. It’s part of the journey. Back at home people were concerned at me traveling so far away to places so different from the U.S. The more I travel, the more I understand that the key to world peace is in the friendships we make. Because, in the end, we all want the same things. We want to be happy. We want our children to be healthy. We want to be there for our friends. The more friends we have in the world the more peace we will have in the world. – March 9, 2014

It’s like Hannah said, there’s a difference between going on vacation and traveling. She told me we are travelers. And I believe it was at this point in the trip I took inspiration from Hannah and became a true traveller myself.

to be continued….

90 Spontaneous Days Around The World : Killing my own spiders

ginger
wild ginger flower

March 2, 2014

Seloliman Nature Reserve, Java

The jungle hikes at Seloliman will stay in my imagination forever. So much to inspire. The great variety of life…the beauty of the wild. I thank God for waist-deep hikes in this jungle. Swallowed in nature, I’m blessed to experience the aliveness of an exotic world. A world my dad called home.

a jungle creature
a jungle creature

“It’s loud in the jungle, just like Dad said. Full of hums and chirps, calls and caws, crescendos and croaks and howls. There’s a million creatures out there and my mind’s alive with the intoxication of sound! One of the best experiences of my life—sitting here on the bed, under the mosquito netting, journaling to the jungle’s symphony.” 

March 4, 2014

Kilabaru, Java

“I just killed a spider for Hannah, she’s adorable. A total sweetheart, she’s extremely adventurous, but really upset by insects. At our last place in Seloliman Nature Preserve, our bathrooms were outside and she had a wasp nest under her sink. She was staying all alone that night (it was her night to have a room all to herself, we all take turns). When she screamed and I was the one to kill the spider, I realized that I’d be killing my own spiders from now on. Once upon a time, he took care of that. So many things shared, so many things lost.”

holy water at the temple at Seloliman
holy water at the temple at Seloliman

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March 5, 2014

Kilabaru, Java

“One of the most amazing memories of the trip so far was when I swam at the Hindu temple in Seloliman. It was completely spontaneous. We’d just hiked to the temple, and before I knew it I was swimming in the temple’s holy water. I loved it. Every second of it. There’s such power in following my instincts, even though I have no idea where they might take me. All I know is that I’m more me when I pay attention to them. 

I was deeply sad at the temple (I think it had something to do with the fact that I would be killing all my own spiders from now on) and I wanted to wash the sadness away. After I went for a swim, my friend David came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder. He asked how I was. The gesture so very unexpected and so very nice. It was the kind of tenderness I wasn’t used to.

Thunder’s booming in the distance and is a comfort. I like the rhythm of the storms. We have no water in our room right now. Last night I blew a fuse when I plugged in my phone for a charge. In the last hotel the electrical didn’t work at all. There’s a peace to life in the darkness I never knew before. I’ve made friends with it.”

To be continued…

90 Spontaneous Days Around The World : How to discover your passions in the face of catastrophe

“the truth I ‘d been running from was so strong,
it was as big as the promise of the coming day…”

bromo.smoke
I made an offering to the volcano to end my pain. I asked God to turn the flowers I tossed into the cauldron of the volcano at Mt. Bromo into happiness.

My roommate Hannah and I sleepwalked into our clothes. Together with our traveling companions, we piled in five jeeps to take the dizzying, nighttime drive to summit Mt. Bromo. I sat in the far back seat of one of the jeeps. Every twist and turn sent mystery metal digging into my hip or thigh. My friends and I had braved many adventures on our tour together. This one was the earliest. After a short hike to the summit we waited, having no idea what beauty we’d witness. What wonders sat in the darkness below.

I saw The Southern Cross for the first time. My friends and I sung the Crosby, Stills and Nash song of the same name. As I sang, I understood why I came to Java— the truth I ‘d been running from was so strong, it was as big as the promise of the coming day.

March 4, 2014

“In the pink and purple smoke of many shrouded volcano peaks, at the summit of Mt. Bromo, the sun rose. Illuminating beauty out of the darkness. It was my sunrise. All mine. A new beginning. An invitation to do the very same thing within my own life. To illuminate the darkness. I am the sunrise. In that moment, I decided I’d always GO BIG. This big trip, this big sunrise called me to trust my big dreams. I’d no longer need to doubt or be frightened by them any longer. I’ll bravely keep on dreaming. Keep on living, to discover myself and my passions in the face of catastrophe.”