My Vacation in Haiku

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It’s been one of those weeks when I’ve thought of several blog topics. Yet, nothing really gelled into anything coherent enough.  Since I’m still getting lots of positive feedback about my posts on Laos, particularly about my iPhone photography, I’ve settled on the easiest post of all: my vacation haiku interspersed with photos.

Most of these were written on the flight(s) back home, motivated by my disappointment that I had been on vacation for 10 days and hadn’t written a single poem to commemorate the journey.

I was traveling to visit my step-daughter and her friend, two professionals in their 20’s who wisely and boldly took a four-month sabbatical to enjoy life and create new experiences.  Fittingly, I took my trip to join them with a friend of my own from college, Angela Casey, with whom I had spent time in several Asian countries 20 years ago. Twenty years? Say it isn’t so!

The first haiku is about youth and how many experiences seem wasted on them. Of course, the motivation for this poem isn’t about Erin and Abby. It’s driven by my recent discovery of my old journals as I prepared to write my memoir, and, likewise, having thumbed through more than a thousand travel photos prior to Angela’s first visit here to Vermont to plan this trip.

“Regret” is wisdom
Condemning youth for missing
The signs. Damned hindsight!

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(Above: Me in rural southern China in 1997. Below: Me and Ange at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore in April 1995.)
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The next one is about my return with Angela to Beijing after so much time. Some of my feelings and opinions developed during the course of my nearly three years as an ex-pat in Beijing were chronicled in this post a month ago.

Beijing, have you changed?
Wi-Fi. Starbuck’s. House of Cards.
Emperor’s new clothes.

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(Above: Ange and me in a Beijing hotel lobby in 1994. Below: The two of us on Tian’anmen Square a few weeks ago.)

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(Above and below: After nearly 20 years, Beijing was different and the same, all at the same time.)

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Most of our trip was spent in Luang Prabang, Laos. This ancient capital and former French colony is situated along the Mekong River and is still home to dozens of active and well-preserved Buddhist temples. None of the four of us had been to Laos before, so we were all discovering new things. Every day was packed with enough bold color and interesting experiences to last a lifetime.

Many of the subjects that formed these haiku were also described in earlier blog posts. And, certainly, also caught in pictures. If you are interested in finding out more about the topics of these poems, be sure to use the links to get more info.

Along the Mekong,
Bold color and bounty spring
From the river banks.

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(Above: Despite the “dry season”, the Mekong banks were alive with crops and boats. Below: Members of a family that farms eggplant along the river. They graciously let us to use their lean-to for our lunch-time break from kayaking.)

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Morning market throng
Fruits, spices, meats of all hues,
Dizzy the senses.

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(Above: Spices at the Luang Prabang morning market. Below: Just a small section of the market.)

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Each temple yard yields
Countless monks by sunrise to
Walk tourist-lined streets.

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(Above and below: Different perspectives of the “tak bat” or morning alms-giving, a daily ritual at sunrise in Luang Prabang’s historic downtown.)

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Blazing orange robes
Catch sunbeams between the trees
To clothe patient monks.

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Fearful ride atop
Elegant, beautiful “beast.”
Wild elephant ride.

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(Above: My view from atop the elephant as we headed into the river at Elephant Village. Below: Our guide’s photo of me and Erin, after I moved from the seat to the elephant’s head.)

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With the months of preparation and research that went into the trip, including a reunion with Angela and a series of planning sessions, not to mention the work and household planning to accommodate it, it’s amazing how quickly the trip arrived and then was gone. With all of the unforgettable experiences that comprise the journey, there’s still nothing like coming back home to Vermont again.

There and back again.
Like Bilbo’s long adventure,
Nowhere else like home.

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A Wild Elephant Ride

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I’ve been back from Laos for exactly a week. The most common question I’m asked is: “What was the best part of your trip?” That’s a terribly difficult question to answer. There are at least 10 different answers, ranging from spending time with my step-daughter, to reconnecting with my old college friend, to traveling through rural Asia for the first time in over 16 years, to returning to my old stomping grounds — Beijing, to creating many unique memories in Luang Prabang, some of which I have already discussed on this blog. Here, I answer this question very narrowly.

I’ve already written about the Mekong River, Laotian food, and the impressive Buddhist influences in Luang Prabang. These are memorable parts of my trip that I will not soon forget. However, if I had to choose just one day among the 10 of my vacation to remember and cherish forever, it would be the one spent at the Elephant Village, an elephant sanctuary and tourist destination dedicated to the protection and rehabilitation of Laotian elephants.

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It’s difficult to impart the unique combination of exhilaration and fear that I felt riding on Mae San, a 35-year-old rescued elephant (read her story here).  Erin and I started out the hour-long ride on the bench atop the elephant — we had to mount by climbing up a platform and then jump onto the 10-foot tall animal! After a brief walk on level ground, Mae San, under the guidance of a Mr. Pan, purposefully headed downhill toward the river. We knew then that we weren’t in Kansas anymore, each wrapping both arms around the bench, holding on for dear life during the descent.

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Shortly after crossing the river, our guide jumped off and asked if one of us wanted to sit directly on Mae San. I turned to Erin who wildly shook her head “No!” So…I volunteered. To call it a “mistake” would indicate that I wouldn’t do it again if asked. I am truly glad I did it. It was amazing, terrifying, and wonderful, all at the same time. Had I known that I would be scared for my life nonstop for 40 minutes, that my quads would shake and pound uncontrollably for at least half of that time, or that the wiry hairs on Mae San’s head would feel like coarse sand paper filing the skin off my ankles ahead of time, I might have responded to the question exactly as Erin had. As it turned out, I am very glad that I was both blissfully ignorant and naively brave when the question was asked.

With the above said, I’ll let the photos that Mr. Pan and I took of this experience speak for themselves.

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Elephants have a long history in Laos and the current situation for the animal there is dire.  As I mentioned in my last post, the original name for much of what is now Laos (including the entire Luang Prabang region) was Lan Xang, which means “one million elephants.” The name indicates how prolific elephants used to be in the area. Today in Laos there are less than 600 elephants in the wild and just over 400 domesticated ones. Read more here.

Why have they essentially disappeared? Of course, many elephants fell victim to the ivory trade.  More info can be found here and here. And, many others were over-worked in the logging industry. Because female elephants are easier to domesticate, elephant cows did nearly all of this logging work. Under the stress of hard work, most became unable to reproduce. The Laos government reports that only 33 of the country’s elephant cows are under the age of 20 and thus safely able to reproduce.

After our exhilarating elephant ride, before our afternoon of kayaking, we boated up the river to see some nearby waterfalls. We were extremely fortunate on our way back down river to catch a glimpse of “Maxi”, a rare male elephant born at the Elephant Village last May.  Maxi is expected to have an important role in repopulating his species. Fortunately, the sanctuary we visited is just one among many organizations dedicated to protecting and repopulating elephants in Laos and neighboring countries.

Needless to say, visiting Elephant Village and riding Mae San are experiences I will never forget.