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Sep 28

The Authentic Fire

Posted on Monday, September 28, 2009 in the fickle freckle

We interrupt the recounting of an epic journey to share a writing exercise I worked on recently. Studying the use of language and spunk in Nikki Giovanni’s epic poem “Ego Trippin‘”, we were asked to create our own version:

The Authentic Fire

Rumors of extinction abound
Whispers of a last dying race
I shun those hollow murmurings of a tired and jaded populace
The Movement is strong
We are here for the good story
The epic story that lasts
One heroic endeavor after another
A shining force of life

I saw all of the other colors
Brunette, black and blonde
And I shook my head and smiled
Reveling for hours at my incredible fortune
There is no greater happiness than the happiness that comes
From being a redhead

Others fuss and fight their nature while
I continue to find the blessings
There will be no extensions
There will be no self-hate or hasty dye jobs
There will be no Jose Eber Secret Hair

But there is a tenderness
Pains comes swiftly and crippling sometimes
For that there is scientific proof
Nonetheless, I am one fiery ball of reckoning
And I will be happy to show you proof

I fly high over the tedious and worn-out assumptions
Bucking stereotypes right and left
My temper flares no more than yours or theirs
My drapes and my curtains
Are none of your damn business

It began with curls and copper
And transcended categorization at every turn
It is spun gold from the land of Rumpelstiltskin
It flows with abandon like the mighty Nooksack
To force or tame it would be akin to slicing the horn off a unicorn
Do not tangle with the magic and the fantastic

I am the authentic, natural masterpiece
Earth, fire wind and water unravel through my glory
The past, present and future intertwine my raging locks

I mean … I … know the full meaning
Of this redheaded wonder
There is no stepchild to beat

Jan 31

The Lefty Dilemma

Posted on Saturday, January 31, 2009 in the fickle freckle

As I approach the 2-week-till-departure time for my one-way ticket to Mumbai, I am filled with a great range of thoughts.

Am I going to overpack? Inevitably.

Am I going to pack the wrong things? Perhaps.

Shall I fall victim to a relentless and violently spirited amoeba or parasite? It is quite likely.

Am I going to stand out as a pasty, shlabby, awkward American girl? Yep.

One concern that makes me very uneasy is the Indian tradition of only eating your food with your right hand. As a left-handed girl, this looms out in front of me as a horribly daunting task. I have been meaning to practice and see if I can get the hang of it, but instinct always wins out over intention.

This policy is regarded as the Cardinal Rule of dining in India. You are not supposed to eat or receive any food with your left hand. The left hand is considered to be “unclean”. Traditionally it is used primarily for wiping your butt. Not armed with toilet paper, mind you. Just free-style.

If this is the connotation that the left hand has, it is surely understandable that no one would want to watch you eating with that same hand. I get it.

I guess in some instances, such as when eating onions, it can be acceptable to eat with your left hand. In some more progressive communities, it is becoming more and more acceptable for left-handed people to eat with their left hand. How will I know when I am in one of those places? Should I wear some sort of patch on my shirt that lets people know?

Across the world, it has always been a tricky thing – to be left-handed. The left hand has always been associated with being wrong, sinister, strange, awkward, clumsy or foul. And new research shows that leftys are more likely to suffer from schizophrenia, dyslexia, alcoholism, delinquency and an assortment of additional mental disabilities. We are also more prone to accidents and dying young.

Man! It’s hard out there for a lefty.

Maybe I can just have my left hand strapped behind my back when I eat in India.

Wish  me luck.

Dec 16

The Living Tar:

Posted on Tuesday, December 16, 2008 in the fickle freckle

I was walking up the stairs to go to my morning high-low aerobics class when a much older gentleman climbing the stairs above me spied me from the corner of his eye and stopped. He turned around and gestured for me to go on ahead of him.

“You’re a red head, huh?” he asked.

“That’s right,” I replied.

“I haven’t had any good luck with redheads, especially redheaded women. They are mean.”

“Really?” I asked, eager to hear his reasoning.

“Oh yes,” he nodded solemnly. “On my very first day of school a redheaded girl came up and beat the living tar outta me,” he said. “You can’t trust any woman, but you especially can’t trust a redheaded woman.”

Aug 17

All Around The Mulberry Bush:

Posted on Sunday, August 17, 2008 in the fickle freckle

With our time in Laos winding down, I wanted to make sure to get in some time in Vang Vieng and “the most laid-back capital city in the world,” Ventiane, before we returned to Bangkok.

My traveling companions, however, were reluctant to get back on the road so I hopped on a bus down to Vang Vieng solo.

It was a pretty brutal 6-hour ride, reminiscent of the relentlessly precarious cliffside switchbacks of the Guatemalan highlands. But the scenery was breathtaking.

Mountains covered in trees or steep limestone slopes for miles and miles in every direction as far as the eye could see.

Every now and then we would drop down into vibrant green valleys of tiny villages and rambling streams weaving through bright green soggy rice paddies.

And then up, up, up we would climb again, barreling around sharp curves, hedging our bets that no one bigger than us would be coming around the corner.

In the guidebook, Vang Vieng’s description gives one considerable pause. Something along the lines of: The main drag through town is full of guesthouses and restaurants inside which sit Western tourists, lounging on elevated couches with mats and pillows watching reruns of “Friends”.


No way, I thought. That is way too bizarre.

As soon as the bus dropped us off in the center of town, I got my backpack and began walking north. And sure enough, in the span of one block, I heard snippets from no fewer than four different episodes of Joey, Monica, Chandler, Rachel, Ross and Phoebe.

The main attraction for tourists who visit Vang Vieng is tubing down the Nam Song river, exploring caves and drinking heavily while doing said activities.

I heard from a British traveler that less than one week earlier, someone had drowned in the river. Smack in the middle of monsoon season brings a powerfully swift current.

I decided to avoid the drunken tubing scene and instead stayed at an organic mulberry farm ( 3km north of town in a small village called Phoudindaeng.

Travelers can come stay at the farm to relax and unwind or, more commonly, people come to volunteer in a variety of ways for a few days on up to several weeks or months in some cases.

Volunteers can choose from a long list of options including working in the fields on the farm or in the gardens or caring for the goats. The farm also has partnerships with the local community center and a youth center and coordinates with volunteers to teach evening English classes to villagers.

The farm’s restaurant serves an inventive array of mulberry items including mulberry shakes, mulberry tea, deep-fried mulberry leaves with a lemon-honey dipping sauce and mulberry pancakes.

Every mulberry product I sampled was quite tasty. The restaurant also offered some zesty traditional Lao dishes and sandwiches with farm-fresh goat cheese.

In the morning I got to help feed the goats. In the evening, I walked up to the community center for the mixed-age English class. While we were waiting for all the students and the Lao English teacher to arrive, we sat along a large patio in front of the center.

A group of girls, ages 10-14, were engaged in what I took to be the Lao version of double-dutch crossed with the limbo. Two girls would hold a long, elastic rope taut at about waist level.

One by one, the other girls would spring toward the rope, leap into the air, hook their toes around the rope and sail over onto the other side.

No one was really keeping score and no one seemed to win or lose, but every girl was working hard to showcase her individual style. Grace, agility, speed and originality appeared to be the most desired traits for excelling in the game.

As soon as the Lao teacher arrived, everyone hustled inside for the class to begin. Students ranged in age from about 10 on up to early 20s. In total, approximately 40 kids came in through the door for the lesson. With such a spectrum of age and ability, the class moves along at a very modest pace.

For the foreign volunteers, their main job when assisting with the class is to help introduce new vocabulary words and to reinforce proper pronunciation. As soon as I came up to the front of the room, the students said, in unison, “Hello, nice to meet you. What is your name?”

I answered and then:

“Where are you from?”

I answered and the lesson began from there. The vocabulary words for the day were shoe, broom, pail, cupboard, belt and shirt.

After the lesson, we hurried down the path to the youth center where the more advanced class for the older students was about to begin. An Australian woman had been volunteering at the farm and leading the advanced class for the past five months.

The week before, a group of Korean university students came to the village and constructed a kitchen for the youth center. The evening’s class revolved around composing a thank you letter to the Korean volunteers. We walked around from group to group fielding questions and offering suggestions.

One group of boys called me over very timidly.

They asked me if I listen to hip-hop.

“Sure,” I replied. Then one boy produced a small camera from his pocket and showed me a clip of an Eminem music video. I was shocked and a little embarrassed.

I tried to see if they were familiar with any other American hip-hop artists but they were mostly just familiar with the real Slim Shady. In addition to American hip-hop they said they were fans of Lao hip-hop, Brazilian hip-hop and Thai hip-hop.

Then they told me that they love to breakdance.

As the class finished and students were filing out the door, I asked them to show me their moves. They smiled shyly and shoved their hands deep inside their pockets.

Then I asked again. Each boy pointed to another and said, “He can do it. He is good.” And then whoever they were talking about would smile and humbly shake their heads.

Eventually – and without music – two boys graciously fulfilled my request and did a variety of spins and flips. I was very impressed.

And fearful that they were going to press me to reciprocate.

Luckily, they did not. My Roger Rabbit is a little rusty.

Aug 10

Along The Mekong:

Posted on Sunday, August 10, 2008 in the fickle freckle

I remember when I first heard that one could take a boat along the Mekong River for 2 days, leaving from Thailand and going into Laos.

Oh, how wonderful! That sounds amazing! I must do that.

And the landscape along the Mekong in northern Thailand and Laos is stunning. Lush green hillsides of thick forest sweeping up on either side. Small thatch-roofed houses dotting the river’s edge among corn fields and rice patties.

The river itself was a wide, murky water thick with brown sediment. The current was strong and fast with sinister whirlpools that trapped sticks and leaves in foamy, roiling pockets.

The actual boat ride, however, was a tour de force of position-shifting and chi-harnessing, sitting on shallow, straight-backed wooden benches for extended days. The first morning, we were some of the last folks to board after getting our Laos stamps and visa clearance.

The only benches left were all the way in the back, right next to the concession stand and in front of the engine room. Before we got moving, it didn’t seem so bad. Then they revved the engine and its mighty roar pummeled any coherent thought I had in my head.

The boat was a long, low-sitting vessel, perhaps 100 feet long and 8 feet across. Inside row after row of benches held somewhere around 60 to 80 mostly Western tourists.

Some were chain-smoking, Some played cards. Some read novels. Many waded up and down the aisle to the concession stand to buy bottle after bottle of Beerlao and sweet basil or curry crab-flavored Lays potato chips.

Sitting in front of us was a French family. In addition to the mother and father, they had Victor, 8, Colleen, 6, and Liam, 3. Liam, a gregarious little firecracker, took no more than 15 minutes to make sure everyone on board knew that he was around.

After about half an hour, the young girls running the concession stand with their mother had adopted Liam as their pet, swinging him around like a rag doll, kissing him and pinching his cheeks and leading him up and down the aisle.

At the end of the first day, we had reached our half-way point: a little riverside town called Pak Beng. We collected our backpacks, climbed the steep cement stairs and were met by a small army of guesthouse personnel, calling us to choose them for the best deal in town.

We wandered up the muddy road a bit and settled for a modest room with one king-sized bed to share among three people for 200 baht (around 6 US$). It was pretty basic, but it met our needs for one night.

As soon as we had set down our packs in the room, Liam and his family wandered in to select a room. They also chose the same restaurant for dinner later that evening.
Liam kept wandering over to our table to tell me details of his life in French.

I tried to use what little French I could remember. But Liam didn’t seem to care that I was tired or that I was a Taurus. That, in addition to telling him my name, used up most of my French ability. That appeared to be enough for Liam though, because every 6 minutes or so he would return to our table to tell me something important.

Later that evening when we came back from dinner, Liam ran into our room stark naked and rolled all over our bed. I imagine many women would be quite alright with having a plucky, naked French boy insist on climbing into their bed, but his father promptly came to collect him.

In the middle of the night, we were startled awake by a suspicious scratching sound under our bed.

A rat.

All throughout the night, we could hear it scurrying back and forth under the bed. We tried to find it in the morning, scare it out from under the bed, but it wouldn’t show itself.

For my part, I was relieved. All I needed to see was that it had tried to gnaw through a mini jar of peanut butter we had left out.

After that, I was almost grateful for the opportunity to return to the boat.

After another long day on the benches, it was a mighty relief to step off the boat onto firm land in Luang Prabang. Although full of tourists, even during the rainy season, the town is charming and picturesque.

For our first full day, we rented bicycles and toured the peaceful residential streets and a couple different wats (temples).

For our second day, we decided to get a little more adventurous and schedule a day of trekking and elephant riding. After spending so much time riding the bench of buses and boats, we were eager to get out and use our atrophied muscles to explore the jungle of Lao.

When we woke up to a heavy rain, we were only partially daunted. But we shrugged it off since our trekking was nonrefundable. We climbed into the back of a covered pick-up and headed out of town.

We climbed deep into the surrounding hills, passing moist, verdant layers of rice patties and steep hillsides of pineapple and corn fields. Eventually we arrived to our initial destination and took a short motor-boat ride across the river to the elephants.

Giant and super mellow, the elephants meandered along a wide path through banana trees, leaving gigantic round imprints in the mud. Afterwards, we fed them bunches of miniature bananas. The elephant’s mouth is a bizarre, slimy place and I got a little closer than I felt comfortable with.

After lunch, we headed off into the jungle. I love hiking and I don’t have a big problem with rain, but monsoon season in southeast Asia is no joke.

Our trail was an endless soupy pit.

Initially, we tried to walk along the edges, but our sneakers kept getting pulled down into the stew, belching out a deep sucking sound with each step. Underestimating a puddle would leave your entire leg buried up to the knee.

About 45 minutes into this experience, we came to a swift river that was about 25 feet across. Our guide smiled and indicated for us to wade out, gesturing that the water should only come come up to our waist.

Naively, several of us assumed this whole river-crossing thing was just a peculiar bit of Lao sarcasm. Ha! There’s the real trail off over to the right. You are a funny, funny man!

And then he held his backpack over his head and made his way through the current. He turned back and motioned for us to follow him.

Eventually we all got across. The river had a very strong current, but it was cool and refreshing, and we were already soaked from the rain. Scaling steep hillsides in the mud proved quite challenging. One leg of the journey had such a tough decline that I ending up just dropping down and scooting/sliding down most of the way.

Our first destination was a remote hill tribe village. It was a very exciting day to be there for all the people were involved in a boisterous town meeting to vote in their next chief who would be the head honcho for the next three years until the next election.

In the late afternoon, we reached our final destination: an expansive rushing series of waterfalls with many different levels of pools to swim in. I was so thoroughly covered in mud that I jumped in with my clothes on at first and I went to stand right in the middle of the rushing water to give my muddy clothes a good rinsing.

Later, when we returned to our hotel room, I took the most highly anticipated shower in recent years.