Taipei, Idul Fitri, and the Indonesian Migrant Community

I was lost in a sea of people. It wasn’t an unusual occurrence after one year in China and two past years in Indonesia–but this time was different. This time my physical body was in Taipei Main Station–a sprawling transportation hub connected by passageways to an underground mall–but my eyes tricked me into thinking I was back in Indonesia.

Selamat Hari Raya Idul Fitri (Eid al-fitr). Sunday June 25th, 2017 marked the end of the holy month of Ramadan for Muslims across the world. Indonesia, the world’s 4th most populous nation, also has the world’s largest population of Muslims, and I just happened to be in the midst of the Indonesian community in Taiwan on this great holiday.

Walking through the station and shopping area, I felt as if I was back in Indonesia. Indonesian women in their beautifully colored and stylish hijabs passed me by the hundreds. I heard Indonesian spoken in public for the first time in nearly three years since I left the country. I even ate Indonesian food that burned my mouth the only way Indonesian cuisine can. In fact, thousands of Indonesians–men and women–gathered at the Taipei Main Station that day eating, shopping, and sitting on the floor for lack of other places.

I sat among them and listened to their stories. A woman shared with me her own story and poetry she wrote.

My reason for traveling to Taipei during my semester break was to visit a former Indonesian student of mine. After university in Indonesia, she further studied in Taipei. It was great to see how she has matured in the past few years. She is not Muslim, nevertheless sees it as important to be with her fellow Indonesians, connecting to them and sharing in this important holiday. The fact that I visited during Idul Fitri was a coincidence, but it only felt natural to take part in festivities.

I was told there are more than 250,000 Indonesian migrants in Taiwan. On Idul Fitri I saw so many women; they come usually as domestic workers, taking care of elderly and children, leaving their own families behind. The men work in Taiwan, too, in factories and as fishermen.

The Indonesians I met were as welcoming and friendly as I remember from my time there. I had my fill of food and fellowship. Unfortunately, it is not always good for the migrants, and they work very hard to have a better life for themselves and their families, sometimes with little reward. I am, however, grateful for the new friends I met and the stories I heard.

The rest of my short time in Taipei was filled with a lot of good food and experiencing various sights around Taipei. I hope someday I can return.

Hiking Up the Mountain

Last month I went with a group of students to a nearby mountain. Mianyang is in a basin, but there are many mountains in the Sichuan province. The students arranged for early transportation for the hour and a half ride to Jiuhuang Mountain (九皇山). No one had told me the scale of this mountain before I arrived. I came prepared for a hike, but not quite for this. As is common here, the mountain itself has been made accessible to non-expert climbers with kilometers of stone stairs, much of it leading straight up the mountain. For those who aren’t keen on stair climbing, there are a series of cable cars leading the way, although it is quite expensive.

About halfway up, there is a suspension bridge (called Lovers bridge) spanning across a wide gap as well as stairs that go alongside the sheer rock face. It was cloudy, and even rainy, which made for some tricky climbing. I imagine the panorama would be even more spectacular had it not been so cloudy.

This mountain also features a cave with spectacular stalactites and stalagmites lit up in a rainbow of colors.

All in all, it was an amazing day that left me exhausted.

Winter Vacation

The dreary gray and smoggy days here in Mianyang persist into March, as the new semester continues. Forthcoming posts about recent activities in the works, however in this post I take a fond look back at the warm winter vacation I spent with two of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers in three sun-filled countries: Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. I returned to places I’ve been as well as experienced the new. I’d been to Bangkok before, but nevertheless enjoyed the massive city; I took a new mode of transport between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, Cambodia–a speedboat, which was definitely worth it; and ventured into Vietnam, all three of us for the first time.

Below are a few of the photos. I was especially enamored with Vietnam. My time there was short, on a few days, but from the sights of Ho Chi Minh City to the food to the beach at Vung Tau–I thoroughly enjoyed it all.

An invitation to the journey

I remember it well—the day I became a student of Eberhard-Karls Universität in Tübingen, Germany. Paperwork with official stamps finally in hand, I bounced through the cobble-stoned streets of the Altstadt toward the bridge that hangs across the Neckar River. Looking out over the old buildings of this once-walled city neatly reflected in the Neckar’s still water, I savored the day’s accomplishments. It was indeed a fine start to my second week of life in Tübingen, on Tuesday September 11, 2001.

Thirty minutes later at the campus computer lab, my upbeat mood came crashing down when I read with disbelief the headlines about the terrorist attack in my home country. Outside, students carried on with their afternoon, not yet aware that thousands of people had died or been injured when planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York City. None of it seemed real; my heart sank, but I was not hopeless.

The next day, and in weeks following, I unleashed a series of emails detailing my perspective from abroad to a list of family and friends—revealing more than general updates and the life of a university student in Germany I had first intended. The email list began as a method to keep in touch, but evolved into a means to help others see their own country and the world in new ways.

During the year I studied abroad, I traveled within Germany and to 11 other European countries (Austria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden, and Vatican City), writing home about each adventure. Through my correspondence, my family and friends watched Germans grieve with the US in the weeks following September 11; they joined me for Christmas 2001 in Finland, with a Finnish friend and her family as we broke tradition on Christmas Day and took an overnight boat cruise from Helsinki to Talinn, Estonia; they felt my curiosity as I rid myself of Deutschmarks and held the Euro’s paper currency for the first time on January 1, 2002; and they discovered what German universities have to offer, especially Tübingen’s unique charm and history.

When I arrived in Tübingen in late August 2001, I was no stranger to travel; however, that year embodied more than study or travel, it heralded significant change in my own worldview in addition to those around me. In the years since, I have traveled to many more places, and I intend to continue that way of life wherever I am, inviting others into the journey.

Reflection on the Neckcar river in Tuebingen, Germany.

The above is a slightly edited version of something I wrote in early 2015 just for myself. Later in the year when I applied to the Peace Corps, I used part of it in my application essay. Now I post it to share that next month I will begin my service with the Peace Corps as an English Teacher in China.

More information forthcoming about what I will be doing and where I will be going, including a more formal announcement. Stay tuned…come, follow me on the journey!

Night Train to Colombo

Our three-wheeler pulls into the dusty lot used as a bus station. Several mini-buses and big red buses similar to school buses idle around, engines humming and doors open, all waiting to depart to various cities in eastern Sri Lanka. I grab my bags and step onto a patch of caked dirt.

My friend Apriliza emerges from the three-wheeler and stares at me. Two men walk by, discussing something in Tamil as another bus pulls out, kicking up dirt around us. Sri Lanka’s majority population are ethnic Sinhala, but here on the east coast are a pocket of Tamil Sri Lankans.

The Tamil Pastor stands next to me and points to a nearby bus. “This is your bus,” he declares in English.

A few days earlier I had traveled to this city called Kalmunai—a tiny dot on a map with no tourism to offer—by repeatedly mispronouncing its name to random strangers. I was in Kandy, a city in the center of the island, with a bus station many times larger than Kalmunai’s, bustling with buses and thousands of travelers. Not deterred by a few confused looks, I said “Kalmunai?” until a man with red betel nut stains between his teeth spat and pointed toward a mini-bus at the end of a long line of larger red buses.

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A is for Alaska: On the move in the Last Frontier

I’m going to start collecting stories and photos from places I’ve been in a series. Each post in the series will feature photos and stories from a different part of the world that I’ve been following the alphabet as names of places, cities, or countries. This isn’t tips or practical information, rather it’s just me telling about the journey. Today, we start with A, and I chose to feature Alaska.

“Why am I doing this?”

It’s a fair question often asked by runners before and during the arduous task of training for and completing the 26.2 mile (42.2 km) test of physical endurance and mental stamina called a marathon. The answer to why varies depending upon the runner, but one can assume many marathoners have questioned their motives and abilities along the way.

The internal conversation might go like this: “I’m running a marathon because [insert reason].” Initially, there’s excitement. Yay! And then on a 20-mile training run, or at mile 22 in the marathon itself comes, “Why the hell am I doing this again??”

This happened to me.

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Hildegard’s Abbey

Charity abounds in all things, from the depths to high above the highest stars, and is most loving to all things; for to the high king it has given the kiss of peace.
— Hildegard of Bingen, “caritas abundat”

On the vineyard-covered hills above Rüdesheim am Rhein, Germany, sits the Abbey of St. Hildegard of Bingen, where Benedictine nuns with heavenly voices still chant Hildegard’s ancient music. Hildegard of Bingen—writer, composer, and mystic born in 1098—founded the abbey that would eventually become what is now in Eibingen, above Rüdesheim.

Seven times a day the nuns gather to pray, in accordance with Benedictine rule (taken from Psalm 119:164). As Benedictines they also exemplify gracious hospitality, opening their doors to guests of all kinds. For a weekend in late March 2002, I was one of those guests.

It was Palm Sunday weekend, the time when Christians prepare for Easter by first marking Jesus’ entry in Jerusalem before his crucifixion death. The worship included a procession outside the chapel with palms and incense.

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Life in Indonesia

Here is a image gallery of photos that show a little of what life was like in Indonesia. Most are from Balige and Siantar, the two cities in the province of North Sumatra where I spent most of my time. In 2 of the photos, you’ll notice a pig’s head. Although most Indonesians are Muslim, I lived among the ethnic Bataks, most of whom are Christian, and regularly eat pork. Indonesia is amazingly diverse, and therefore, my life in the region around Lake Toba was different than someone who experienced Java, Bali, Nias, or Sulawesi islands. I hope to make more galleries about different aspects of life there, as well as other places I’ve traveled.

Elections and Hope in Sri Lanka

“In my country there will be an election,” declared Oskar my taxi driver, as he drove me through the center of Colombo.

An hour earlier, my flight had landed at Bandaranaike International Airport, 35km north of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city and capital. It was Sunday, January 4, 2015, four days ahead of the awaited election.

In October 2014, then Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa called for elections to be held in January 2015—two years before they were due. A month later, Maithripala Sirisena, a former ally to Mr. Rajapaksa, announced his candidacy under the opposition coalition. In his re-election bid, incumbent President Rajapaksa told voters to “go with the devil you know,” contrasting his longevity as a two-term president and the relatively unknown career of Mr. Sirisena.

Under Rajapaksa, the military had defeated the rebel separatist Tamil Tigers in 2009, which gave him support from the nation’s Sinhala majority. His critics, however, allege human rights violations during the 26-year civil war. Both sides have been accused of violating human rights, although the government under Rajapaksa hadn’t acknowledged any abuses.

In the taxi, Oskar had begun with polite conversation at the airport—the usual where are you from, where are you going in Sri Lanka, how long will you stay—but his swift switch into politics surprised me.

“Who will you vote for?” I asked Oskar, curious, and hoping I wasn’t intruding.

“Maithri,” he said, not shy about his support for opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena. “It’s time for change in this country,” he added.

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Chatting with a Monk in Thailand

IMG_3520Last December I traveled to Chiang Mai, Thailand to run the 3rd in a series of 3 half marathons. I spent the remainder of my time bicycling around the old city eating delicious food and finding peace in the various temples. One afternoon, while walking around Wat Chedi Luang, I noticed a banner hanging from a building on the grounds with an invitation to speak with Buddhist monks, titled “Monk Chat.” Curious, I walked over to check it out. I had never actually spoken to a monk before, and the idea sounded intriguing. A young monk promptly greeted me. We sat down at a table and began to chat, just as the banner had suggested.

I asked about his life as a monk. He told me his days begin early in the morning at 4am, with meditation, cleaning, and preparation, continuing with breakfast and other duties such as reading, studying, attending class, or collecting alms throughout the day. They survive on charity from people through donations of merit offerings, carrying with them few possessions. He explained anyone can be a monk for any length of time.

Originally from Laos, the young man in front of me recently became a monk, and therefore still a novice. He is a student at a Buddhist university, learning about his religion and also studying English. I told him I had just finished two years as an English teacher in Indonesia, and asked what he wanted to know about my native language. Throughout our chat, he jotted down new words and idioms, always eager to know more.

Who knows the future, but it is probable this young man will choose to leave the monk order after graduating and pursue a normal life outside. Learning English, he said, is a valuable skill for the future that could have many applications.

After an hour, I began to politely excuse myself—I didn’t want to take up too much of his time. Before I left, he asked if I had facebook and would I accept a friend request to help him practice English sometime. Of course, I told him, a little bit surprised he had facebook.

I learned a lot that day—about the practice of another religion, the life of Buddhist monks, and the aspirations of one young monk in particular—and I’m grateful there is still a way to remain connected so we can continue learning and sharing.

Wandering in Wales

Sometimes I get itchy feet. The urge to get out and about seizes me, and I am compelled to travel. Somewhere, anywhere. My most recent trip from December and January is evidence of that, but this wasn’t the first time; it started a long time ago, and I have no intention of stopping.

Eight years ago this month my itchy feet led me to the UK to wander. The first stop was in Wales to hike up Mount Snowdon. At 3,560ft, Snowdon’s peak lacks the ruggedness of the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges of my home in the Pacific Northwest. Even so, Snowdon is an excellent hike with fantastic panoramas of the region. Well worth the time.

After some research, I decided to ascend via the Snowdon Ranger Trail, staying the night at the youth hostel near the beginning of that trail. It was there at the hostel that I met another bloke who intended to hike up the Snowdon the next day. We chatted at dinner and he suggested we go up together. Already prepared to go it alone, I was nevertheless welcome to the idea of having company.

As we walked, my companion Vern told me this day was his birthday. Climbing Snowdon was on his bucket list and he was ecstatic to have the opportunity to ascend on his birthday. I, of course, was happy to accompany him for the occasion.

We walked, talked, and generally had a good time. It was Vern’s suggestion that we descend a different path. Our descent through the Ryd-Ddu path was equally amazing and at the end of it we stopped in a small town for dinner. It was a day of the unexpected, and I went to bed that night full from the rich experience.

To my surprise he offered to drive me to catch my train the next day, and given the extra time that saved, we toured a bit more around the area, including a quaint old train called the Ffestiniog Railway. More unexpected.

I’m grateful for his generosity and companionship for those two days. It’s been eight years, but Happy birthday anyway, wherever you are now, mate. Cheers!

Snowdon Ranger Trail
Ascending on the Snowdon Ranger Trail
A shrouded path
The clouds obscure the view of the summit and make staying on the trail difficult. Piles of stones as waymarkers helped guide us to the top.
A Shrouded Path
At the summit looking back the way we came. Clouds still shroud the view.
Beginning the descent, using the Ryd-Ddu path.
My walking companion on his birthday.
Ffestiniog Railway
Ffestiniog Railway, an unplanned extra excursion.

The people I meet: Cambodia


This is Suon. He is a victim of the war and devastation caused by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. I met Suon while taking the tour at the War Museum in Siem Reap. The museum itself is little more than rusting old tanks, and an assortment of guns, landmines, and photographs. What makes the experience real are the personal stories of tour guides. Not only did I learn about Cambodian politics past and present, but more importantly I heard a man’s story of suffering and survival.

Suon’s family was killed by the Khmer Rouge and he was taken and made to be a soldier as a boy. His life as a soldier ended when he stepped on a landmine that blew off his right leg. The recovery was long and difficult without any family. Now he makes a living as a guide at the War Museum. He expressed dismay at the current situation in Cambodia, but hope that change for the good can come. I am amazed that such hope can prevail over cynicism or despair–but it is hope that is necessary to make a better future.

He asked if I had come to Siem Reap because of the half marathon race. Yes, I said. The day before I, along with about 7,000 other participants, had finished the Angkor Wat International Half Marathon. He thanked me because the race was organized to help charities in Cambodia, especially for those who suffer because of land mines. The work to remove all remaining land mines and to care for the victims is ongoing and must continue.

A week earlier I had a brief encounter of hope on the way into Cambodia. The woman who sat next to me on the flight into Phnom Penh was visiting her country for the first time since her childhood. After leaving Cambodia, she became a US citizen and hadn’t returned since. She expressed a mixture of excitement and nervousness to see the country of her birth. Her life was very different than the tour guide’s, but they are all part of Cambodia. I don’t know what happened after we landed, but I hope the time was good for her, and that she found what she needed in visiting her country and with relatives.

I continue to think about Cambodia. I am thankful for the stories I heard and share in their hope for the future.

Triple Half Marathons

Catching up on blogging about my travels in December and January, here are some photos from running three half marathons in three consecutive weekends. Since I love to travel and run, why not combine the two and make it a great adventure?

I started with the Angkor Wat International Half Marathon on 7 December 2014 in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It was well organized and awesome to run next to the ancient ruins. The race started early but the heat still was an issue, so I was thankful the course was mostly along the tree-lined roads.

Running next to Angkor Thom. Angkor Wat International Half Marathon.

Next was the Thailand Half Marathon in Bangkok, Thailand on 14 December 2014. This one was more of a local event, but still well-run. It started at the Rama VIII bridge and continued along the elevated highway, so there wasn’t much scenery. Still an awesome race. Story from race day: my hotel was a couple kilometers from the start line, and with an early AM start, I set out to find a taxi. But the taxi driver I got didn’t speak any English and seemed to not even understand when I pointed at the map exactly where I wanted to be dropped off and to my race number pinned to my shirt. Maybe he was reluctant to drop a white lady off at a random place, but anyway I jumped out of the cab and ran to the start line, since I already knew how to get there–made it with 10 minutes to spare. It pays to know your way around.

Running across the Rama VIII bridge in Bangkok, Thailand.

Finally, to complete my triple crown of half marathons, I ran the Chiang Mai Half Marathon on 21 December 2014 in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Another well-organized run I thought to be really fun. Near the end I swore it felt longer than 21km, but I actually crossed the line for my best half marathon time ever. I stayed so focused I didn’t get any pictures during the race, but I’m darn proud of these medals for all three half marathons.

3 Half Marathons. 3 Consecutive Weekends. 2 Countries.
3 Half Marathons. 3 Consecutive Weekends. 2 Countries (Cambodia and Thailand).

Nearing the end…

A quick update from Kuala Lumpur airport again. I spent a week in Sri Lanka and experienced (among other things) the presidential election. More thoughts on that later, but I am happy for a peaceful outcome and hopeful for the future of the country.

So, an overview of where I’ve been in the past 5+ weeks:
Brief 12-hour overnight layover in Taiwan, a week in Cambodia, a week and a half in Thailand, 12 days in Indonesia, and a week in Sri Lanka.

Now I start the journey back to the US, going the other way and thus at the end of it, I’ll have completed all the way around the world. I started this morning in Colombo, Sri Lanka; now in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; soon bound for Frankfurt, Germany; then onward to US soil, first landing in Chicago. It’s a crazy long list of connections, but I designed it that way on purpose.

Here’s the sunset on my last day in Sri Lanka:

Quick Update

For the last month I’ve had little time on the internet, so here in my transit hotel in Kuala Lumpur, I will post a few photos without the stories. Briefly so far: one month traveling and I’ve been to Taiwan (transit overnight), Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia. I ran 3 half marathons in 3 consecutive weeks (in Cambodia and Thailand). And I visited old friends in Indonesia. A full update will have to come after I return to the US in less than 2 weeks. For now, these photos:

Running in the Angkor Wat International Half Marathon
Running in the Angkor Wat International Half Marathon
Eating a fried tarantula in Cambodia.
Eating a fried tarantula in Cambodia.
I finished 3 half marathons in 3 consecutive weekends.
I finished 3 half marathons in 3 consecutive weekends.
Christmas Eve worship in Medan, Indonesia.
Christmas Eve worship in Medan, Indonesia.